After a Dayton Daily News investigation found more than 4,400 cases of underage teens marrying across the state, Ohio lawmakers are working to prohibit marriage before age 16.
Ohio Senate Minority Leader Kenny Yuko, D-Richmond Heights, is introducing a bill that would raise the marriage age to 18 for both the bride and groom, allow marriage at age 16 or 17 with judicial and parental consent and prohibit marriages under age 16.
State Rep. Jeff Rezabek, R-Clayton, said he is working with a bipartisan group in the Ohio House to draft a bill with similar restrictions.
“It could move fairly quickly in the sense of getting a bill out in the next month or so,” he said.
Current Ohio law requires brides to be at least 16 and grooms to be at least 18, but exceptions are made for younger, pregnant teens if they have parental consent and juvenile court approval. That effectively means there is no legal minimum age for marriage in Ohio.
Fraidy Reiss, director of Unchained at Last, a national group seeking to end child marriage, said Yuko’s bill falls short because it will still allow minors to marry at age 16 or 17.
“And when a child is forced to marry, the perpetrators are almost always the parents — so parental ‘consent’ does nothing to protect children. This bill doesn’t give children any protections or rights; it’s a victory for parents who want to forcefully marry off their children,” she said.
The Daily News investigation found that between 2000 and 2015, 4,443 girls age 17 or younger were married, including 59 who were 15 or younger. In one case, a Gallia County judge allowed a 14-year-old pregnant girl to marry a 48-year-old man in 2002 — 15 years later, they are still married.
Marriage before age 18 is still legal in all 50 states, though Connecticut, New York and Texas each recently adopted laws to increase the minimum marriage age and several other states are considering legislation to do so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Unchained At Last advocacy group.
The Tahirih Justice Center, another non-profit that seeks to end underage marriage, compiled marriage laws in all 50 states and found 25 states have no bottom floor age below which a child cannot be married, even with parental or judicial approval.
Yuko’s bill also seeks to strike out anti-gay marriage language in current law. The language, as well as a state constitutional amendment approved by Ohio voters in 2004, was struck down in June 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must permit same-sex marriages and recognize those performed in other states.
Rezabek said he aims to keep his bill focused entirely on prohibiting underage marriage.