Bill to raise marriage age to 16 clears N.H. House committee, lowers age for same-sex couples

  • Jackie Cilley and Cassandra Levesque of Barrington at the State House on Tuesday. Paul Steinhauser—For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 2/20/2018 7:02:47 PM

A bill to raise the minimum marriage age in New Hampshire to 16 – the legal age of sexual consent – easily passed its first State House test on Tuesday.

Existing state law that dates back over a century allows girls as young as 13 and boys as young as 14 to marry if they have court and parental consent.

But a recent amendment to the bill would also lower the age for same-sex marriage age from 18 to 16 year-old is already drawing fire.

“There’s no justification for sacrificing gay kids to try and help heterosexual kids,” said Mo Baxley, a vice-chair of the state Democratic party who last decade spearheaded the movement to legalize same-sex marriages in New Hampshire. “That’s the wrong way to go.”

Baxley was upset that Democratic lawmakers didn’t give her a heads-up about the lowering of the same-sex marriage age, which was recently added during a subcommittee hearing.

“Every one of the legislators has my phone number. I worked on some of their damn campaigns,” she said. “So for them to do this and for me to hear a rumor and have to rush down here – shame on them. Shame on them.”

Baxley believes the marriage age should be 18 for everyone and said it was intentionally set that way in the same-sex marriage legislation.

“The reason there was a difference between homosexual and heterosexual marriages is because heterosexual marriages could unintentionally or accidentally impregnate each other and for some religions that is a sin,” Baxley said. “That’s not an option for gay and lesbian couples. Gay and lesbian teenagers cannot accidentally impregnate each other.”

The House of Representatives Children and Family Law Committee on Tuesday gave a unanimous recommendation for the bill, House Bill 1587, as well as two accompanying measures, House Bill 1586 and House Bill 1661). The bills will now head to the full House chamber for votes as early as next month.

In a rare move during an executive session, the committee allowed the Barrington teenager who championed the bill to speak briefly following the votes.

“I’m very excited that these bills passed this committee,” said Cassie Levesque, who graduated from Dover High School last year.

Levesque watched last year as state lawmakers killed a bill she had pioneered for a Girl Scouts project, which would have raised New Hampshire’s minimum marriage age to 18. She vowed not to give up.

Levesque, who said her grandmother and great-grandmother both married as young teens into abusive situations, told the Monitor that the effort has been inundated with support.

“I love to see the support. The more support that this bill gets, the more that it is raises awareness to the problem,” she said, referring to child marriage. “It’s not just a local or national problem; it’s a global problem happening everywhere, and I wan it to stop.”

Levesque teamed up with Democratic state Rep. Jackie Cilley of Barrington, who’s the lead sponsor of the bill to raise the marriage age.

Cilley said this year’s attempt to raise the marriage age is “a very different story” from last year’s effort.

“We’re much more prepared for any adversity. We have advocates who are solidly behind us,” she said, pointing to support from Republican Gov. Chris Sununu last month.

Cilley voiced optimism that the bill would eventually become law this year, but added “I can promise you this, if anything goes wrong with these bills this year, we’ll be back.”

The attempt to make the marriage age consistent for heterosexual and same-sex couples could prove problematic.

While Cilley said it’s important for the marriage age to be consistent, Baxley couldn’t have disagreed more.

New Hampshire legalized same-sex marriage in 2009, six years before the Supreme Court of the United States ruled nationally. New Hampshire’s law set the age at 18 for same-sex couples to marry.

“I’m the one who insisted that if the age of consent wasn’t 18 for our marriage bill, then we wouldn’t take a marriage bill,” said Baxley, who was the executive director of New Hampshire Freedom to Marry.

“We would not sacrifice our children and put them at risk to pedophiles for anything,” she added.

One of the two other marriage bills unanimously recommended by the committee was HB 1586, which would prevent judges from authorizing marriages in cases where sex between the parties would constitute sexual assault. The other measure, HB 1661, would give guidance to judges in making decisions when minors petition for marriage. It would mandate that the judge in the case would talk to the minor petitioning for an underage marriage.

A sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Amanda Gourgue of Barrington and Lee, said “these are just certain steps to make sure there’s no coercion and that the parties are going in on their own without any push from outside parties.”

State vital statistics show the total number of child marriages per year is relatively sparse, and has been steadily declining over time. In 1989, New Hampshire judges allowed 115 child marriages. Since 2001, 20 or fewer were performed each year. In 2017, five child marriages were allowed in the state, and one was rejected by a judge, according to the state court system.

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