CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A child marriage bill is heading to the West Virginia governor’s desk after lawmakers agreed to let 16- and 17-year-olds get married with restrictions.
The House of Delegates passed the bill 83-9 without debate Saturday, a day after the Senate easily endorsed it after making changes to an earlier House version. Republican Gov. Jim Justice hasn’t publicly indicated whether he’ll sign it.
Currently, children can marry as young as 16 in West Virginia with parental consent, and anyone younger than that regardless of age can get married with a judge’s waiver.
The bill passed Saturday would remove the possibility that anyone younger than 16 could marry. Those ages 16 and 17 would have to obtain parental consent and they couldn’t marry someone more than four years older than them. Existing legal marriages, including those done in other states, would be unaffected.
The bill was thought to be dead on Wednesday night when the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected it, but the bill was resurrected by Sen. Charles Trump on the Senate floor Thursday and moved to Friday’s final vote. Saturday was the final day of the legislative session.
Some Democrats, including the bill’s sponsor, Del. Kayla Young of Kanawha County, had hoped to eliminated child marriage altogether, while some Republicans spoke about how they or their parents had married before adulthood and that such marriages protect families.
Young said the bill likely would have died without the Senate amendment. She said prior to the House’s vote that she was pleased that the bill prevents those younger than 16 from marrying and prohibits larger age gaps.
“This is a huge step to protecting our youngest children,” Young said on Twitter.
Seven states have set the minimum age for marriage at 18, all since 2018, according to the nonprofit group Unchained At Last, which seeks to end forced and child marriage. Supporters of such legislation say it reduces domestic violence, unwanted pregnancies and improves the lives of teens.
According to the Pew Research Center, West Virginia had the highest rate of child marriages among the states in 2014, when the state’s five-year average was 7.1 marriages for every 1,000 children ages 15 to 17. Recent figures were unavailable.