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Gov. Cooper signs new law preventing marriages for minors under 16

DTH Photo Illustration. Gov. Roy Cooper recently signed Senate Bill 35, which raises the legal marriage age in North Carolina from 14 to 16.

Minors under the age of 16 are no longer allowed to marry in North Carolina under a new law signed by Gov. Roy Cooper on Aug. 26.

Senate Bill 35 raises the legal marriage age in North Carolina to 16 with parental consent or judicial authorization. Prior to this legislation, North Carolina was tied with Alaska for having the country’s lowest marriage age at 14. 

Minors ages 16 and 17 are still able to get married to an individual who is no more than four years older than them with parental consent or judicial authorization.  

“This legislation is an important step toward ending child marriage in North Carolina and instituting more protections for children,” Cooper said in a press release. “While it falls short of raising the age of marriage to 18, it will make our state a safer place for children.” 

A study from the International Center for Research on Women reported that approximately 9,127 marriage licenses involving minors were issued in North Carolina between 2000 and 2019. The study estimated that 93 percent of the applications were for marriages between a minor and an adult. 

Before this new law, children ages 14 and 15 were allowed to marry under a “pregnancy exception,” which required court review before a marriage license was granted in the event that one of the parties involved was pregnant or already parenting. In this case, a guardian appointed by the court would determine if the marriage was in the child’s best interest. 

Under S.B. 35, this pregnancy exception no longer exists for those under 16 years old. 

The bill was a bipartisan effort and passed unanimously in both the House and Senate chambers. 

"This bipartisan effort keeps our children and communities safer," Sen. Danny Britt Jr., R-Columbus, Robeson, said in an email. "I’m thankful for the many collaborators on both sides of the aisle for pushing this much-needed effort over the finish line — our families will remember your determination.”

Rep. Kristin Baker, R-Cabarrus, one of the bill's sponsors, said those who marry as minors face increased risks of dropping out of high school and college, increased medical and mental health disorders and future poverty.

“As a conservative Christian, I am a strong supporter of the sacrament of marriage,” Baker said in an email. “As a child psychiatrist, I am determined to protect our vulnerable youth and to enhance their chances for happy, healthy futures. I believe this bill achieves both those measures, and I am honored to be a part of this critical effort.”

Another concern was human trafficking. The age of consent in North Carolina is 16, but before this legislation, 14- and 15-year-olds were allowed to marry. S.B. 35 allows the state’s civil laws to align with its statutory rape laws and intends to deter North Carolina from becoming a hotspot for human trafficking. 

The North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission expressed its support of the passage of S.B. 35 in a statement last month.

"North Carolina has become a destination for those seeking child marriages," commission Chairperson Jennifer Haigwood said in a statement. "Human trafficking was a large concern for the bill sponsors in both the Senate and the House, and this bill serves as a deterrent and one more tool in our toolbox to combat human trafficking in North Carolina." 

The only states where children under 18 cannot marry are Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, according to Equality Now, an advocacy organization that aims to protect women and girls. 

Sen. Vickie Sawyer, R-Iredell, Yadkin, was also a sponsor on the bill. 

"Sen. Sawyer introduced this legislation to protect our most vulnerable youths from the detrimental harms of child marriage which, among other things, include abuse and exploitation," Elle Basile, legislative assistant for Sawyer, said in an email.


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