CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – A bill to ban child marriage in West Virginia is headed back to the House after the State Senate passed an amended version on Friday on a 31-1 vote, with two people absent.
The no vote came from Sen. Mike Woelfel (D-Cabell). The two absent are Sens. Glenn Jeffries (R-Putnam) and Robert Karnes (R-Randolph).
Under the current law, children can marry as young as 16 in West Virginia as long as they have their parents’ permission. If they can get a judge to sign off on it, children can get married before that.
With the passage of this bill, the minimum age would be 18 years old. This would remove the ability for an underage person to obtain consent to marry through their parents, legal guardians or by petition to the circuit court.
13 News spoke to both sides who agreed there should be some kind of limit on the age you can get married, but banning child marriage completely and what effect it will have on issues like human trafficking is where their opinions differed.
“Folks like to tell these stories from the 1950s and 60s where true love prevailed like Romeo and Juliet, well that ended in suicide,” Sen. Mike Woelfel (D–Cabell) said. “The day has passed for children to get married. I mean, you can’t even vote under 18, why in the world would you be able to get married?”
Republicans like Kanawha County Senator Mike Stuart agree something needs to change, but he does not support the bill the way it was originally written. He said his parents married young, and they have been married for about five decades.
Instead of preventing teenagers in love from getting married, he said the important thing is to protect children from being exploited by older adults.
“I think everyone here in the State Senate supports a floor for marriage but we also want to make sure that those 16-year-olds like my mom and dad that we’re not somehow standing in the way of those types of relationships,” Sen. Stuart said. “We don’t want our children being the target of adults who intend to take advantage of those relationships. So, what we want to do is place a variation of age, we don’t want huge gaps.”
According to data from the Pew Research Center, West Virginia has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the whole country. In 2014, for example – the last year data was available – seven out of every 1,000 minors got married in the state.