Dover High School senior Cassandra Levesque found out first hand the sting of losing a legislative battle. Even worse, it came on a bill she never imagined would fail – one that would have barred middle-schoolers from getting married.
Levesque watched from the second row in the House gallery as the policy she had championed – raising the marriage age to 18 – went up in flames.
Not only did the bill die, the Republican-led House voted to effectively bar it from coming up again this year or next.
“I was shocked, and a little mad and a little upset,” said the 17-year-old. “But I took a breather, and decided that I am going to keep trying for this until this bill gets passed.”
It’s not the first time lawmakers shot down a student’s bill request. In a now infamous moment, House members mocked and then defeated a bill recommended by fourth graders to make the red-tailed hawk the official state raptor. As the nine and 10-year-old students watched on, one lawmaker said the hawk would make a better mascot for Planned Parenthood because it uses a “razor-sharp beak to rip its victims to shreds, to basically tear it apart limb by limb.”
Marriages that include minors aren’t common in New Hampshire, but records show they do happen. Levesque, like many, was shocked to learn the legal age to wed in New Hampshire is 13 for girls and 14 for boys. At that age, Levesque was focused on school and her studies, not matrimony.
But she was familiar with the issue. Both her grandmother and great-grandmother had been married at age 16 to much older men, she said. “I realized that this could be happening to so many other people’s families, and it’s not right.”
New Hampshire is among a handful of states this year that considered raising the legal age for marriage to 18. The United Nations Population Fund calls child marriage a “human rights violation” and says it threatens “girls’ lives and health, and it limits their future prospects.”
Levesque did her own research and said she found married children were less likely to get good paying jobs and more likely to experience domestic violence or divorce. So, she decided to try and change state law. As a Girl Scout, her gold award project is advocating for minors and this fit right in.
She connected with Democratic Rep. Jackie Cilley, who filed the bill. Levesque calmed her nerves and testified at a hearing in favor of her proposal. She then got out of school early last Thursday to sit for hours with her parents in the House gallery waiting for the measure to finally reach the floor. She then watched as half-a-dozen Republicans argued to keep the marriage law intact. Some said its repeal would increase the number of children born out of wedlock, others argued it would prevent young soldiers from sharing military benefits with a teenage spouse.
Despite unanimous backing from the House Children and Family Law Committee, the bill failed by nine votes. Eighteen Democrats voted to kill it while 29 Republicans voted in favor of raising the marriage age.
Some opponents said what sunk the bill was a committee amendment that raised the minimum marriage age to 18, no exceptions. The original bill would have still allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to wed, so long as they had parental consent and sign-off from a judge.
“That would have been reasonable,” said Republican Rep. David Bates, who fought against the bill. “Ninety-six percent of these minors are getting married when they are 16 and 17 years old, which is perfectly reasonable under certain circumstances.”
Cilley argued the bill should have been tabled, instead of effectively killed for two years, so those concerns could have been addressed.
“How can you argue that it’s alright for a 13-year-old to get married?” she said. “There’s nothing fine about that.”
But with parental consent and sign-off from a judge, it’s still legal in New Hampshire.
Levesque didn’t leave the House empty handed. After the bill’s defeat, House Speaker Shawn Jasper addressed her directly from behind the podium and offered his condolences.
“While I understand that you are certainly disappointed with the outcome, I can assure you that every member in this chamber who has filed a bill has been disappointed on the outcome of some of their bills multiple times,” he said.
Levesque is attending the New Hampshire Institute of Art after graduation, and will be ready next session to bring back the bill.
“Don’t forget the cause,” she said. “I am not giving up.”
(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)