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Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, who's trying to become the next House clerk when current House clerk Butch Speer retires at the end of the year, appears before the Board of Ethics scheduled monthly meeting in the Labelle Room of the Lasalle Building Friday April 12, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. Landry was accompanied by her attorneys Alesia Ardoin and Gray Sexton.

Conservatives in the state House fought back a measure to set a minimum age to marry at 17 in Louisiana, heavily amending the bill to allow people under the age of 16 to get married with some conditions.

The state currently has no age floor for getting married, and backers of the legislation said current law allowing child marriages leaves young girls vulnerable to human trafficking and cover-ups for rape.

“This is to make sure we don’t have people covering up acts of rape as a marriage,” said state Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-New Orleans, a supporter of the legislation. “This is a child protection issue.”

Hilferty convinced the House to agree to raise the age to 17, after the original bill by state Sen. Yvonne Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, set an age of 16. The vote on Hilferty’s amendment was 63-to-31.

But the supporters of the bill, which included state Rep. Pat Smith, who handled it in the House for Colomb, faced stiff resistance from several conservative lawmakers who touted the benefits of marriage, even between 15-year-olds. Republicans heavily rewrote the bill to allow for minors to get married under some conditions, sending it back to the Senate and certainly a conference committee for lawmakers to work out differences.

“We want children to be born into wedlock if possible,” said Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette. “We’re discouraging that with this. If they’re both 16 or 15 and having a baby why wouldn’t we want them to get married?”

“A lot of 16-year-olds get pregnant,” added Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs. “Do you feel it’s better for them to not get married at all and for the child to be born illegitimately?”

State Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, brought an amendment backed by the influential Louisiana Family Forum to heavily rewrite the bill, stripping out the age floor set by Hilferty’s amendment and allowing minors to get married if they undergo a judicial review. A judge would consider a long list of factors when deciding if children should get married.

“I met my husband when I was 14 and he was 15 and if it wasn’t for the belief that we should get a high school diploma before we get married, I would have gotten married at 15,” Amedee said.

Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said she was “in awe” of the opposition to the bill, especially because efforts to provide sex education in Louisiana have repeatedly failed. She pointed to instances of teenage girls being wedded to men in their 30s and 40s.

“That’s not right in our state,” Smith said. “We need to protect our children.”

Louisiana has no legal minimum age for marriage, but under current law, if one or both partners are aged 16 or 17, then parents need to appear at the clerk’s office at the time of the marriage application. Those under the age of 16 currently require a judge’s approval to get married.

More than 4,500 people under the age of 18 – including one as young as 12 – were legally married between 2000 and 2010 in Louisiana, according to figures compiled by a nonprofit organization and the documentary TV program Frontline.

Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.