The legislative session is almost over. So maybe it’s time for lawmakers to stop doing damage.
The apparent failure of an effort to sharply curtail child marriages, which happened over the weekend when the House basically amended the meaning right out of it, doesn’t actually make things worse. But by first backing new limits on these unions and then backing off, lawmakers whiffed on a chance to protect younger teens from either voluntarily entering a legal arrangement — or far worse, being pressured or even forced into one by an adult — before most sane people would deem them ready to make such a life-altering decision.
The resistance to the bill brought by state Sen. Yvonne Colomb, which proposed that minors aged 16 and 17 would need permission of a parent and a judge to get married and bar marriage for anyone under 16, was launched by allies of conservative Louisiana Family Forum, who don’t appear to see a downside to the idea of kids marrying kids, or adults.
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 pe…
“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,” said state Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma. Is she really arguing that waiting for those diplomas wasn’t the better option?
And state Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, suggested that the idea discriminates against those 16-year-olds who are “very mature,” as she argued that many are.
Yet that doesn’t stop government from deeming them insufficiently mature to vote, to join the military, to buy cigarettes, to get a drink. The obvious caveat underscored by this session is that lawmakers and the governor have no problem with youth being forced to carry a pregnancy to term, even if it’s a result of rape or incest, according to a separate newly passed law.
The bottom line to the arguments among opponents to a minimum age for marriage seemed to settle on the question of whether a pregnant teen should get married to avoid having a child out of wedlock. Yet marriage is hardly the right answer for many teens who find themselves in this situation. Nor is it enough justification to ignore the dynamic at the heart of the bill, the potential for abuse of young people who are victims of sexual abuse. And it’s not like these lawmakers otherwise support policies aimed at reducing teen pregnancy.
State Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-New Orleans and a supporter of the bill, rightly pegged the bill as a “child protection issue.”
“This is to make sure we don’t have people covering up acts of rape as a marriage,” she said.
So did state Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, who handled the bill on the House side for Colomb. She pointed to teens getting married to adults in their 30s and 40s.
“That’s not right in our state,” Smith said. “We need to protect our children.”
Still, after backing Hilferty’s move to raise the proposed minimum age from 16 to 17, her colleagues passed a heavily amended version of the bill that still allows minors to marry under some circumstances. The bill now heads to a conference committee with senators, who approved a tighter set of restrictions. Differences would have to be worked out by Thursday in order for any version of the bill to be sent on to Gov. John Bel Edwards.
If that doesn’t happen, lawmakers will have missed a chance to add one more child-friendly accomplishment to a session where some actual progress is being made. They’re ready to increase funding for early childhood education. And they’re poised to extend foster care services that now end when a child turns 18, setting a new limit at 21.
Those are positive developments that should be commended. Still, it would be easier to feel good about them if lawmakers didn’t somehow balance every step forward with one step back.