Arizona is on the verge of finally setting a minimum age for marriage.
On a 20-8 margin the state Senate voted Thursday to make it illegal for anyone younger than 16 to wed.
More to the point, HB 2006 says anyone younger than 18 can get married only if she or he has been legally “emancipated,” meaning legally declared an adult free from parental control and support, or if a parent has given consent.
And in the latter circumstance, the prospective spouse of the 16- or 17-year-old cannot be more than three years older.
Already approved by the House, the measure now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey. If the governor approves, Arizona will no longer be among the half of all states that, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, sets no minimum age to marry.
The success of the bill stems from the persistence of Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who pushed the effort — but also was willing to compromise to get final approval.
Under current law, there is no minimum age for marriage.
For younger than 16, however, it takes not just parental permission but also court approval. A judge must require premarital counseling if “reasonably available,” and conclude that the marriage is voluntary and in the child’s best interests “under the circumstances.”
The original proposal would have outlawed all nuptials for anyone younger than 18, regardless of the situation and regardless of parental OK.
“Why do we need to allow underage marriages to happen?” Ugenti-Rita asked when she introduced the measure last November. “What is the public benefit to that?”
But Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, would not even entertain such a proposal in the House Judiciary Committee which he chairs.
“I contacted quite a few people,” he said. “I think there was a consensus that simply just prohibiting marriage for under 18 with no exceptions was not a real reasonable approach.”
Facing death of her bill, Ugenti-Rita agreed to the exception for those as young as 16 with emancipation or parental consent.
That still did not make everyone happy, particularly the part about those who wed that early not having a potential spouse who is more than three years older.
“I think many of us know of situations of people who are 15, 16, 17 years old have boyfriends four or five years older than they are,” said Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott. “They have healthy relationships and may even have healthy marriages.”
And for him, it was personal.
During House floor debate, he said his grandparents, immigrants from the Ukraine, married when he was 21 and she was just 16.
“Had they not been married, I would not be here,” he told colleagues.
And fellow Prescott Republican Noel Campbell said there are “plenty of exceptions where young girls have been married before they turn 16, happily married to a loving husband with children.”
That did not convince most of their colleagues.
Farnsworth said the three-year limit makes sense, saying it allows for situations where a high school freshman can date a senior. He said that three-year maximum means that people are not only of similar mindsets but also there is “similar power structure so you don’t start to get into the levels of abuse that you do when somebody is 35 and 16.”
There is no statewide figure of how many teens younger than 18 wed each year in Arizona, as marriage licenses are issued by court clerks in each of the state’s 15 counties.
An analysis done for Capitol Media Services by the Maricopa County Clerk of Superior Court found that 570 minors received a marriage licenses in a five-year period ending last June 23. The actual number of licenses is slightly less, at 524, as some went to couples where both were minors.
That’s out of about 20,000 licenses issued each year.
Aaron Nash, the agency’s special counsel, said that in all cases examined, all the minors were either 16 or 17 years old.