Missouri's teen marriage law is a fair compromise

Missouri Governor Mike Parson signed a new bill into law this week which alters the state’s requirements for marriages involving children under the age of 16. Critics hoping for a more restrictive cutoff may see it as only trimming around the edges of a very real problem, but the state was also at risk of going too far in interfering in the rights of families. There had previously been no minimum age for marriage, though children under the age of fifteen required either parental approval or the intervention of a judge. Under the new law, there will be no marriages allowed before the age of 16. (Kansas City Star)

Gov. Mike Parson on Friday signed into law Senate Bill 655. Before, Missouri was one of 25 states with no minimum marriage age. And Missouri was the only state that allowed children age 15 to marry with only one parent’s approval, even if the other parent objected. Children younger than 15 needed a judge’s approval.

“The welfare of our children must always be a top priority,” Parson said in a statement Friday.

In March, The Kansas City Star published a series on child marriage showing that Missouri possessed the dubious honor of the most lenient law in the nation allowing 15-year-olds to wed.

The result was that Missouri had become destination wedding spot for 15-year-old brides, with 1,000 15-year-olds being wed in the state between 1999 and 2017. Many of them were marrying men age 21 or older, in effect allowing the girls to marry their rapists.

This remains a contentious subject for many of us. I’ve long held the position that the government needs to be out of the business of marriage almost entirely, not levying taxes or demanding licenses from consenting adults wishing to engage in such a ceremony. But I’ve always specified “almost entirely” because there are a few exceptions, and child marriage is one of them. (Marriages involving adults with diminished mental capacity and questionable ability to provide informed consent fall in the same category.)

When the fig leaf of marriage is being used as an excuse for men in their twenties, thirties or even seventies to “marry” little girls, there is a crime being committed and it shouldn’t be sanctioned by the government. This new law forbids all marriages between adults 21 or over to children age 16 and below. That sounds about right. If the young girl honestly believes she is in love and destined to be with an older man and has no family members willing to talk her out of it, she can at least wait until she’s a legal adult and then take her chances. (I realize I’m being a bit gender specific here, but it’s almost always the older men trying to marry the younger women rather than vice versa.)

The problem here is that when it comes to children in the same age range who have the full support of their parents (and possibly even a judge) the law is still uncomfortably restrictive. This is particularly true when the young girl turns up with child. Having a girl sixteen or younger getting pregnant is clearly far from a desirable situation and the families should have been providing better supervision, but young people are not blessed with the best common sense in all cases and mistakes are made. It’s true that kids around the age of 15 are not considered ready for marriage these days (while it was actually quite common a century or more ago) and the success rate of such marriages is low. But if the girl is pregnant, they believe they are in love and the families are willing to lend their support, is it really such a crime to let them try? My grandparents married as teenagers (she was 16) and they were still married when she passed away in her early 90s. Sometimes love finds a way.

Still, there was clearly a demand for such a law among the state’s residents as expressed by their representatives. It’s something of a compromise and definitely not perfect, but it accomplishes some good while not being too restrictive. Much as with the more dubious cases I mentioned above, a pair of 15-year-olds who wind up being expectant parents can wait it out and marry after they turn 16. And a state level solution such as this is still far preferable to a mandate from Washington.