The Connecticut House of Representatives voted Wednesday to prohibit the marriage of anyone under 18, moving to close an existing loophole hole that allows 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with the approval of a probate court.
The bill passed following an evening debate on a 98-45 vote with both support and opposition on both sides of the aisle. The legislation will now head to the state Senate for consideration.
State law already requires people to be at least 18 years old in order to marry in Connecticut. However, that policy, adopted in 2017, allows 16 and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent and the authorization of a probate court judge.
Proponents of the bill argued the change would bring Connecticut law in line with its neighboring states and prevent situations in which minors are pressured into marriage against their will and then lack the legal standing to extract themselves from the contract.
Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said that science suggests people must be of a certain age before they have the mental capacity to make major decisions.
“In our state we require someone be 21 in order to purchase alcohol or tobacco. We require someone to be 18 to vote or join the military,” Stafstrom said.
“Certainly, the state has a very compelling interest in moving forward with this legislation, making sure that one is not coerced into a marriage and also that they do have the mental capacity and free will to enter into a committed marriage,” Stafstrom said.
Opponents questioned the necessity of the change. Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said that some 31 people under 18 had been married since the law in 2017 and no one had cited evidence that any of those unions were problematic.
“Where is the urgent crisis that’s being bandied about and fundraising is going on with regard to this?” Fishbein said. “The system is working, as far as I can tell and I can’t stand here in support of this. It doesn’t work,” he said later.
Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, said that the current system did not adequately protect minors from coercion. The experiences of survivors of forced marriage suggest that most had been forced to marry by their own parents, she said.
“So Connecticut’s current law, which allows for approval by the probate judge and the parent, really doesn’t protect children,” Gilchrest said. “If a child is being forced or coerced by their parents and they attend the court with those parents, they’re still going to feel pressured to go forward with the marriage.”
Many states have laws similar to Connecticut’s current policy but Connecticut’s immediate neighbors have adopted laws prohibiting marriage under 18 years old. Given the position of the region, Gilchrest said Connecticut risked becoming a “destination state for forced marriage.”
Opponents drew parallels to Connecticut’s positions on issues like abortion and gender-affirming treatment for transgender people.
“The very people in this room that want to make this state a destination abortion state are opposed and fearful that this would be a destination marriage state,” Rep. Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly, said.
“So at 13 years old a boy can have his penis chopped off but he can’t get married,” Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, said.
The comment drew an immediate rebuke from Rep. Geraldo Reyes, a deputy speaker from Waterbury who was overseeing the debate. “Sir, that is not part of this bill,” Reyes said.
“It is part of this bill, Mr. Speaker, I’m sorry,” Dubitsky said. “Because what it does is it shows that we are creating an environment where children cannot get married because, supposedly they are not mature enough to make that decision yet under state law, they’re mature enough to have their bodily parts removed.”
If the bill is passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, Connecticut would become the second New England state to raise the marriage age to 18 in the last several weeks. Late last month, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signed similar legislation into law.