child marriage negotiations 060519

House Civil Law Chairman Raymond E. Garofalo Jr., R-Chalmette, meets with Baton Rouge Democratic Sen. Yvonne Colomb on the Senate floor June 5 to go over possible changes to legislation that would set a minimum age for children to marry in Louisiana.

The future of legislation that would set a minimum age for children to marry basically will be decided at the beginning of the last day of the session.

In the opening moments of Thursday’s meeting, House Speaker Taylor Barras will name the third member of a conference committee charged with hammering out what some lawmakers are calling a fight between country club Republicans, who are backing a minimum age of 17, and country Republicans, who don’t want any minimum age.

Louisiana is one of the few states in the nation that allow girls of any age to marry with the permission of parents and a judge.

The measure’s chief sponsor, state Sen. Yvonne Colomb, preferred barring marriage for anyone under the age of 18, but said she compromised at a 16-year-old minimum.

She’ll work with whomever is chosen by Barras, but Colomb predicted that if Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, the New Orleans Republican who pushed the 17-year-old minimum, is tapped, then Senate Bill 172 likely will get through the legislative process and go the governor.

If Barras chooses Houma Republican Rep. Beryl Amedée, whose amendment stripped the minimum age requirement, the legislation is likely dead for this session, she said. “They don’t want a minimum age,” Colomb said Wednesday evening.

Barras said Wednesday night he had hoped the two sides would work it out.

When asked specifically whether he leaned towards Hilferty or Amedée, Barras said he would spend the evening reviewing a long list of candidates and announce the conference committee Thursday morning. They'll have until 6 p.m. to settle their disputes and get both chambers to go along.

Basically, it boils down to the rules.

When the House and Senate approve different versions of the same bill and can’t agree on which one to accept, each chamber names three members to a conference committee to negotiate a solution. Two members in each chamber must sign off on the agreement.

All three senators named are willing to go with 16-year-old or 17-year-old minimum age, even 15, Colomb said. In addition to her, Sens. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, and Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, are the Senate’s representatives.

The House conference committee would include Baton Rouge Democratic Rep. Patricia Smith, as Colomb's representative in the House. She favors setting a minimum age.

Chalmette Republican Rep. Raymond E. Garofalo, as chairman of the House Civil Law Committee, also would be on the conference committee, leaving one vacancy. Garofalo says he’d prefer Amedée be the third choice.

“Our goal is to promote the family,” said Garofalo, who spent much the day negotiating with Colomb.

Very few marriages would be affected. The Louisiana Department of Health counted in 2015 only five marriages – out of 29,703 – were between boys and girls 17 years old and younger. Only 46 marriages took place between a bride 15-to-17 years old and a groom older than 17 in 2015.

Colomb’s legislation to prohibit the issuance of a marriage license for a minor under the age of 16 and for any 16 or 17 year old seeking to marry a person more than four years older was well on the way to passage Sunday night.

Hilferty convinced the House to agree to raise the age to 17. The vote on Hilferty’s amendment was 63-to-31.

But conservative lawmakers argued about the benefits of marriage, even between teens.

Lafayette Rep. Nancy Landry, a Republican supporter of Amedee amendment, argued that marriage offers many legal protections. "If they’re both 16 years old, and they both consent to sexual relations, and they’re about to have a baby, why wouldn’t we want them to be married?” Landry said.

On a 53-40 vote, the House backed Amedée’s amendments stripping the minimum age requirements, but giving a court more latitude in deciding if a minor can marry. The Amedée amendment gave more discretion to a judge reviewing individual petitions. The judges would consider pregnancy, maturity, evidence of force and other issues.

Moments later the House passed the much-amended bill. 

The next day news outlets from Time Magazine to NBC TV as well as talk radio hosts and internet bloggers criticized the vote, some in harsh terms, others with “that’s Louisiana” dismissals.

The changes are backed by Louisiana Family Forum, a Baton Rouge-based evangelical group that generally supports Republicans who favor the conservative social policies they promote. Family Forum is affiliated with the national Family Research Council.

Before being elected to the House in 2015, Amedée, an ordained minister, was the Education Resource Council chair for Louisiana Family Forum and legislative liaison for the Christian Home Educators Fellowship of Louisiana.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.