Sherry Johnson points to a a book about her childhood as she speaks during the “Conference to End Child Marriage by 2020” in Mamou, Louisiana March 17, 2018.

How young is too young to get married?

It’s an international debate that is engaging state lawmakers across America and one that the Louisiana Senate is scheduled to wade into later this week.

Though the United Nations has been pushing for an international minimum marital age of 18 for nearly a decade — and U.S. foreign policy last year listed reducing child marriage as a goal half the nation’s states, including Louisiana, grants licenses to minors, albeit often with conditions applied.

In Louisiana, 4,532 people under the age of 18, one as young as 12, were legally married between 2000 and 2010, according to a compilation of marriage licenses by a nonprofit organization and Frontline, a documentary television program.

Study after study shows that minors who marry, particularly girls, face a hard life.

Research shows that married girls are far more likely than their unmarried peers to drop out of high school, end up in poverty or get beaten by their spouses, said Kelsey Lee of Unchained at Last  in New Jersey. The nonprofit advocacy group helped draft the Louisiana bill as well as those introduced in California, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Though married, minors often aren’t legally old enough to drive or to vote or to smoke. Getting out of a marriage that has turned sour — about 70 percent end in divorce as opposed 50 percent for the rest of the population — is difficult because minors need the sponsorship of their guardian to be involved in most Louisiana court proceedings, and often that would be their spouse, the very person they’re trying to get away from, said Ginger LeCompte of Women United in St. Landry Parish.

New Jersey’s Senate Thursday approved a House-passed bill that would set the minimum at 18 years of age. If the House approves minor wording changes and the bill is finally enacted — Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has indicated he would sign it — New Jersey would become the first state that bars marriage for minors.

Louisiana’s Senate Bill 463 would do the same thing.

Louisiana and the rest of the country, except Nebraska, allow a couple 18 years of age and older to marry without parental consent. But under current Louisiana law, if one or both of the partners are aged 16 or 17, then parents need to appear at the clerk’s office at the time of the marriage application. Under the age of 16 requires a judge’s consent.

It took years to get out of her marriage, Audrey Hampton, of New Orleans, tearfully told senators last week in a Senate Judiciary A Committee hearing. Almost from the moment she said “I do” as a young girl, matrimony ended both her childhood and her independence.

“Children are too young to make life decisions,” Hampton said.

Marriage should be more “want to” than “have to,” said Camille Fontenot, of Ville Platte, after describing the life of a minor relative who got pregnant, married and was pretty much on her own to care for children.

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“Let’s make a statement. Let’s make it 18,” Fontenot said.

Negotiations are underway that likely will tighten marriage laws regarding age, but it appears likely the bar will be set below the age of 18 that supporters want.

That’s how other state legislatures have handled similar legislation when faced with opposition from those in the religious community who argue that marriage is the foundation to societal stability. Other lawmakers feared setting a minimum age for marriage would stifle religious freedom and make options, such as abortion, a more attractive solution to teenaged pregnancy.

Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Doucey on Wednesday signed a bill preventing anyone younger than 16 from getting married. The legislation was aimed at preventing sexual abuse and manipulation of minors.

Kentucky and Florida governors signed similar minimum age laws earlier this year.

The Rev. Gene Mills, head of the Louisiana Family Forum, a Baton Rouge-based group which advocates issues from a conservative Christian point of view, opposes SB463, but sees the possibility of changing that position if negotiations bring Louisiana’s legislation more in line with that of Arizona’s.

“Why would you discourage marriage in an era when marriage is declining?” Mills said.

The percentage of women ages 20-24 who are married, for instance, fell from 57 percent in 1976 to 17 percent in 2014, according to an April 2017 report by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The other issue Mills raised is that the bill specifies marriage “between two natural persons,” rather than between “a man and a woman.” That definition is unacceptable for Mills. Some conservatives have been vigilant this session in turning back any changes to the state’s “a man and a woman” definition after the nation’s highest court found same-sex marriage legal.

The sponsor of SB463, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, said she was willing to change that language in order to erase opposition to the bill. Carter, who serves as head of the state Democratic Party, said she is open to making several changes to the bill before presenting it to the full Senate for a vote.

Michelle Ghetti, who teaches family law at the Southern University Law Center, opposed setting a bright-line legal age that would keep minors from getting married. It would remove any claim on community property and spousal support should the marriage fail.

Ghetti prefers instead to legislate the gap in ages between partners.

Susan East Nelson, Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families and a supporter of the legislation, points out that state law against sexually molesting a juvenile sets the age limits at being no more than two years apart if one of the partners is under the age of 17 and the other is over the age of 17. The crime carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Mills said keeping 12, 13 and 14-year-olds from getting married is a reasonable goal. “We’re working to overcome the problems, and if we do, we can get behind this legislation,” Mills said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.