RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The minimum age to marry in North Carolina would be raised from 14 to 16 under a bill the state Senate unanimously passed Tuesday, sending it to Gov. Roy Cooper (D) for his signature.
The bill also sets a maximum age difference of four years for minors who would still be allowed to marry.
“Right now, what we’re doing is stopping the most egregious of cases, those young women who are married to older men and basically enslaved by marriage,” said Sen. Vickie Sawyer (R-Iredell).
Current law allows 14- and 15-year-olds to marry with a judge’s approval when one is pregnant with a child or already has a child and if both parties agree. Alaska is the only other state where the law specifically allows marriages at 14, according to the Associated Press.
When supporters of the bill started the process, they wanted to push the minimum age to marry to 18. Six other states have taken that step, according to Unchained at Last, which tracks this issue nationally.
Sen. Sawyer said as she talked to other lawmakers about this, she met some resistance from those who married as minors, had relatives who did that or knew someone else who did.
“That’s valid life experience for them. And, I wanted to get something done to protect young women in North Carolina. So, I chose instead of getting nothing done to get something done,” she said.
As other states have raised their minimum age to marry, Sawyer said some adults have turned to North Carolina as a destination to marry child brides.
“It’s become a child trafficking destination. Our marriage laws are actually being used for that. So, this law will stop that,” she said. “To me, it’s like the biggest first step. This hasn’t been looked at by any party, Republican or Democrat, since 1993.”
The International Center for Research on Women recently studied marriage applications in half of North Carolina’s counties, finding the state is among the top five in the number of child marriages.
Lyric Thompson, the center’s senior director of policy and advocacy, said as they dug deeper into the numbers, what they found was “alarming.”
“Fifty-seven percent of those marriage applications would have been constituted a felony offense in terms of age difference under our statutory rape laws,” she said. The largest age difference was a 57-year-old who applied to marry a 17-year-old, the researchers found.
Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Guilford), who was one of the lead sponsors of a similar version of the bill in the House of Representatives, said she’s concerned about adults viewing the state as a destination to marry minors.
“What a terrible thing to be known for of people coming to visit, right?” she said. “Changing the limit to be within four years will dramatically decrease having much older men, usually, looking for young women to take advantage of in our state.”
She said she’ll continue pushing in the years ahead to raise the minimum age to marry to 18.
“So, we will take this first step forward, but we will keep moving because we have more steps to take,” she said.