JEFFERSON CITY • The Missouri House gave initial approval Wednesday to a measure that would raise the legal age of marriage to 17 from 15 years old.
Currently, if a 15-year-old applies for a marriage license, a county's recorder of deeds is obligated to issue one. In addition to increasing the age requirement, a judge would also have to rule that the marriage is advisable.
Rep. Jean Evans, R-Manchester, who has introduced the measure the last two years, said her bill would help protect girls from being abused. Sometimes parents force their young daughters into marriages to traffic them, she said.
"This was another piece of the puzzle" to ending human trafficking, she said, referencing other measures that have been introduced to combat the crime.
While Democrats were generally supportive of the measure, some Republicans expressed reservations about Evans' proposal.
Rep. Wanda Brown, R-Lincoln, said the legislation would circumvent the rights of parents.
"I'll never vote to take away parental rights of my parents in my district," she said, "and then tell those same parents I think a judge can make a better decision than they can."
Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, said he knew people who had married young and it wasn't a "predatory" situation. He said he wanted to protect those people's rights.
"We're binding the hands of people," Brattin said on the House floor Wednesday.
"Not adults, just children," Evans responded.
Some expressed concern that it might violate religious freedoms. Evans said the bill does nothing to stop two people from having a religious marriage ceremony but does prevent those under the age of 17 from getting a marriage license from the state.
The ultimate point of the bill is to protect minors in dangerous situations, not infringe on deeply held beliefs, Evans said.
Rep. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, and Rep. Nick Marshall, R-Parkville, said the law would send the wrong message — namely, that teenagers could engage in premarital sex.
"We send the message that 14-year-olds, 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds can engage in intercourse with impunity," Marshall said.
To get on the "right side of God," those teenagers would then have to jump through hoops to get married, he said.
Brattin agreed. Forcing teenagers to marry is "horrible," he said, but "there are also people who are trying to do it in a God-honoring way."
Brown then joined in.
"Teenage marriage is not ideal," she said, "but sometimes it's necessary."
Last year, Evans' bill passed the House with only one "no" vote, but it never made it to the Senate floor.
The legislation is House Bill 1630.