There’s a rift between the Florida House and Senate over a bill that could ban outright all marriages for minors in the state, and that will become more pronounced on Wednesday when the lower chamber takes up the matter.
House members will consider the child marriage bill (SB 140) passed by the Senate, but with an amendment that would allow some minors to marry in cases when a pregnant minor is at least 16 years old. The partner would have to be no more than two years older.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran has said this provision would allow “high school sweethearts” to marry, but critics say it could trap a minor into a marriage in which the partner is an adult and has more legal advantages than the minor.
“Sixteen-year-olds are still children. It is important that anyone that enters a marriage enters in equal footing,” said Ryan Wiggins, the representative for Sherry Johnson, who was forced to marry her rapist at the age of 11.
“It would be bad governance to allow (minors) to enter a marriage where they can end up trapped,” Wiggins added.
Legislation proposing a strict ban on all minor marriages passed the Senate unanimously, with the upper chamber as a co-sponsor. Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto has been a vocal sponsor of the measure and has been featured in national news stories as her proposal would make Florida the first state in the nation to have such a ban.
The House, however, has been more conservative on the matter and has inserted religion into the debate. Some members argue that a baby born out of wedlock is a concern for many Floridians and that there should be some flexibility for older teens who get pregnant. Others, like state Rep. George Moraitis, said a ban could push minors to seek “different” options, alluding to abortion.
To appease some of the concerns from House members, Republican state Rep. Jeanette Nunez has filed a strike-all amendment to Benacquisto’s bill that would allow a court to issue a marriage license to 16- and 17-year-olds if the partner is no more than two years older. Nunez is the sponsor of the child marriage bill in the House.
Her House bill includes a paternity test as a requirement to issue the marriage license, but Nunez’s amendment to the Senate bill would get rid of that mandate. However, the couple would still require a written statement from a licensed physician to verify the pregnancy.
Under the proposal, all minors under 16 would be banned for getting married, which under certain circumstances is legal under current state law.