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Lawmakers take another swipe at changing child marriage statutes

State House Bureau

January 16. 2018 6:33PM
Cassandra Levesque, now in the second year of her campaign to end child marriage in New Hampshire, testifies before the House Children and Family Law Committee on Tuesday. (Dave Solomon/Union Leader)

CONCORD — Cassandra Levesque, then a 17-year-old senior at Dover High School, watched from the gallery in March of 2017 as the New Hampshire House voted to kill a bill that would have raised the legal age of marriage in New Hampshire to 18.

The 179-168 vote came as a disappointment to Levesque, who launched the legislative initiative while working toward her Girl Scout Gold Award, with the help of Rep. Jacalyn Cilley, D-Barrington.

Cilley and Levesque were back in front of the House Children and Family Law Committee on Tuesday, promoting another child marriage bill, this time seeking to raise the legal age to 16.

House rules preclude last year’s bill from being taken up again in the current session, but former Speaker Shawn Jasper concluded that the change in age from 18 to 16 was sufficiently different to allow HB 1587 to be introduced.

“I understand that we cannot address raising the age limit to 18 now,” Levesque said. “However, I would like to talk with you about raising the marriage age limit to 16. To allow children ages 13, 14 or 15 to marry is just inconceivable. Allowing that to happen takes away their future, and I know in my heart that is not something that anyone here wants to happen.”

A state law dating back to 1907 allows girls as young as 13 and boys as young as 14 to marry, with permission of a parent or guardian and approval by the family court.

Opponents of efforts to change the law last year said young service members should have the right to marry their teenage sweethearts before deployment, so they are not deprived of family benefits. Others voiced concerns about girls who conceive out of wedlock and whose parents support marriage to the father.

Rep. Brian Stone, R-Northwood, has introduced a separate bill (HB 1287) setting the marriage age at 16, with exemptions for pregnancy or military service, in the hope of addressing the concerns raised last year.

“I would urge the committee to consider this bill instead (of HB 1587),” he said, “so that we can have a bill pass the House this year, as the composition of our legislature is relatively the same as last year and those legislators’ concerns remain the same.”

Two other bills have been filed related to child marriage. HB 1586, also filed by Cilley, would prohibit courts from granting permission for a marriage involving a minor if the other party, but for the marriage, would be guilty of sexual assault.

A fourth bill, HB 1661, establishes various protection of minors who petition the court to marry. If passed and signed into law, it would require town clerks to provide the minor with a list of social service resources; and require the court to hold an evidentiary hearing with testimony from a guardian ad litem and the Department of Health and Human Services.

It would also establish a waiting period between the date the petition is filed and the date of judicial approval; and a second waiting period between the date the license is issued and the date of the marriage ceremony.

Committee chair Kim Rice, R-Hudson, said ideas from the various bills could be blended into a single piece of legislation to address the issue.

Levesque, whose quest gained her national notoriety, is holding out hope for a bill that prohibits marriage by anyone younger than 16.

She told the story of her grandmother and great grandmother — both child brides and both suffering abusive and failed marriages. “Hearing these stories made me angry, sad and more determined that this should not be happening,” she said.

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