A watered-down version of a bill that originally sought to ban marriage for people under 18 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
After facing opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union and some lawmakers, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, altered the bill to remove the prohibition and instead call for more stringent judicial screening of child brides and grooms.
An opposition letter the ACLU sent to Hill’s office Friday said the bill “unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental rights of marriage without sufficient cause.”
The organization questioned the severity of the problem in California and asserted that some children can appropriately decide to marry for themselves. The ACLU further argued that existing law requires both parental consent and judicial approval of marriage under 18.
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On Tuesday, the committee heard testimony from a woman who said she was forced by a religious cult to marry at age 15. The woman, who went only by Sara because she fears reprisals from the cult, said she married a man 13 years older and was “essentially his prisoner.”
Hill initially wrote the bill at the request of a 17-year-old girl.
Aliesa Bahri of Los Altos heard about another young woman in her community who was forced into an arranged marriage.
“I thought this wasn’t something that could possibly happen in California,” Bahri said. “I contacted State Sen. Jerry Hill about the issue. He was outraged.”
Hill pledged to start crafting a bill that would offer protection for minors who are forced into marriages, Bahri said.
The latest version of the bill requires Family Court Services to interview each party and one of the parents and report any suspicion of child abuse or force. A judge must also interview the parties and determine that the minor is willingly entering the marriage. The bill also calls on counties to report data on court orders granting underage marriages.
Hill’s office pointed to research that found marriages before age 18 have at least a 70 percent chance of ending in divorce. Women in the relationship are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to complete college than unmarried woman at that age, according to studies.