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Florida’s other new minimum age law has nothing to do with guns

Most of the Florida news this week (aside from Florida Man, of course) has dealt with the state raising the minimum age for purchasing most long rifles to 21 and the immediate NRA lawsuit which followed. But there’s another bill which has passed the legislature and been sent to the Governor’s desk, and it also deals with questions of minimum age. This one covers marriage. If signed into law, this legislation will impose significant restrictions on marriage for anyone under the age of eighteen. (Boston Globe)

A woman who was 11 when she was forced to marry her rapist has worked for six years to ban child marriages in Florida. On Friday, she was hailed as a hero after the Legislature passed a bill prohibiting marriage for anyone under 17. State lawmakers have repeatedly cited Sherry Johnson as an inspiration to change the law. She watched in the House gallery as the bill passed the House on a 109-1 vote, then stood as representatives turned to face her and applauded.

‘‘My heart is happy,’’ she said afterward. ‘‘My goal was to protect our children and I feel like my mission has been accomplished. This is not about me. I survived.’’

The bill was a compromise between the House and Senate. The Senate originally passed a bill that banned the marriage of anyone under 18, but the House had wanted to carve out exceptions for some 16- and 17-year-olds when there’s a pregnancy.

So the new bill will only allow a 17-year-old to get married if the proposed spouse is no more than two years older. There are no exceptions for pregnancy and marriage at 16 and under is forbidden even with parental consent. Currently, 16 and 17-year-olds can be married if both parents agree and there’s technically no minimum age if the girl is pregnant, but you need a judge to sign off on the nuptials.

Cases like this tend to get under my skin because of all the complexities involved. I’ve long maintained that government should be out of the business of marriage with only a couple of exceptions. The idea of minimum age laws happens to be one of those exceptions, recognizing the need to prevent the abuse of those unable to give informed consent under the guise of marriage. None of these laws should be handled at the federal level, so letting the states deal with it is preferable. On both those scores, Florida is at least partially on the right track here.

Unfortunately, when you draw a red line in the sand like this you tend to brush some important things under the rug. Florida Republicans in the House had wanted to have at least some exceptions for pregnancy, but the compromise bill overruled them. That’s unfortunate. While it’s hardly the ideal situation anyone would wish for, there are going to be times when an underage girl and her boyfriend wind up conceiving. If both are inclined and the families agree, it seems abusive on the part of the state to refuse to at least give them a shot at marrying and making a go of it as a family. Yes, marriages at that age tend to have a high failure rate, but some of them succeed and that actually used to be quite common in America. (My grandparents married when she was 15 and he was 17 and they were still married when she passed away in her nineties.)

I do understand what the legislature is trying to achieve here and I don’t disagree with their goals. They cite some alarming statistics of recent marriages in that state, including one instance where a man of more than 90 married a girl who was 16 or 17 years old. That’s not a case of needing to call a preacher. You should be calling the cops. I get it. But there are times when young love and poor choices go hand in hand and this law just ignores those realities.

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