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How young is too young to get married? Maryland legislators fail to raise age to wed above 15

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox sums up the 2018 General Assembly session. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

Legislation that would have raised the minimum marriage age in Maryland above 15 died in the final hours of the General Assembly session Monday night as the Senate and House of Delegates failed to reach a compromise.

Maryland law sets a minimum marriage age of 15 — if the teen's parents or guardians consent and if the female to be wed is pregnant or has given birth. The Senate passed a bill raising the age to 16. The House said 17. Neither side would budge despite pleas from lawmakers who sought higher ages.

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"We have to get rid of 15 being when to marry," Sen. Bobby Zirkin told his fellow lawmakers. "It's an embarrassment to the state."

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, the Howard County Democrat who sponsored the House bill, refused to go lower than 17. She said giving in to the demands of her Senate colleagues could set a bad precedent for other states considering similar legislation.

Her original bill, sponsored by Zirkin in the Senate, sought to set the minimum age at 18.

A similar disagreement led to an impasse on the final day of last year's session, and neither chamber's bill passed.

We have to get rid of 15 being when to marry. It’s an embarrassment to the state.


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Maryland health department statistics show that 85 people aged 17 and younger were married in Maryland in 2016, the agency's most recent report. The statistics do not show specific ages under 18. In 31 marriages, one spouse is 17 or younger while the other is 20 and older. Five spouses in their 30s married someone who was 17 years old or younger.

The law now says that 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with parental consent. If the parents do not consent, the teens can still marry if the woman to be wed can show she is pregnant or has given birth.

Zirkin had expressed confidence earlier in the day that the two sides could find a compromise.

"We are going to come to a conclusion on this one way or another," the Baltimore County Democrat said.

A hour before the midnight deadline, Zirkin was still trying to revive negotiations. He urged the three senators on the conference committee to take one last shot at a deal, reiterating that a minimum age of 15 was embarrassing.

His arguments were in vain.

Minutes later Atterbeary confirmed that the legislation was going nowhere.

The freshman delegate had an otherwise successful session, sponsoring successful high-profile bills making it easier to convict serial rapists and to seize guns from people convicted of domestic violence crimes.

But the marriage age setback still stung.

"I should be ecstatic but I feel like crying," Atterbeary said.

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