Ban on child marriages in Washington could soon be law

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, lead sponsor of the House bill to ban child marriage, stands with advocates and survivors against child marriage dressed in wedding gowns in the Washington State Capitol in January. (Grace Deng/Washington State Standard)

Child marriage is still legal in Washington. That may soon change: The Washington Senate on Friday passed a bill on a 48-1 vote setting a minimum marriage age of 18.

Before 2018, child marriage was legal in all 50 states. It’s now legal in 40, according to Unchained at Last, a group working to end child marriage.

Washington is one of five states that don’t put any age limit on marriage. The state does require parental consent for people who are 17 to get a marriage license. For people younger than that, a county judge must grant approval.

Between 2000 to 2021, 5,048 children — 83% of them girls wed to adult men — were married in Washington, according to a study from Unchained at Last.

The House passed the ban unanimously in January. For it to become law, Gov. Jay Inslee must sign it. The House passed similar legislation in 2023, but it stalled in the Senate. Inslee’s office said he “supports the Legislature’s efforts to protect kids from being forced into marriage.”

The only senator to vote against the ban on child marriage was Sen. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney. Holy told the Standard that he had friends in high school who married at approximately the same age due to pregnancies and had “successful marriages.”

“Most of what you heard out here was hyperbole or talking points,” Holy said, referring to lawmakers speaking about the stories of child marriage survivors.

Holy also said he doesn’t want to “force” pregnant people to either “have an illegitimate child or have an abortion,” and that as a former law enforcement officer who worked in the sex crimes unit, he trusts the justice system to make decisions on whether children who marry are acting of their own free will.

At least 38 of the roughly 5,000 child marriages in Washington Unchained at Last documented involved cases that would be considered sex crimes outside a legal marriage, according to the group.

Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, spoke about her own family’s experiences with exploitation. Her father, she said, is 46 years older than her, and her mother is only 13 years older than her.

“I have lived that trauma,” Trudeau said. “I have beared that trauma. In my specific situation, my father traveled overseas and took advantage. For me to realize this was happening right here in Washington state — I was shocked.”

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, introduced an amendment to allow 17-year-olds to marry with parental approval as long as there is “clear, convincing evidence” the marriage is voluntary and not coerced. Democrats weren’t convinced and the amendment failed.

Nationwide, the majority of those who marry underage are between the ages of 16 and 17. Advocates say it’s much more difficult to get victims of domestic violence help when they aren’t old enough to hire a lawyer or access other resources. Some domestic violence shelters also turn minors away.

“If we want to end child marriage in Washington, we should end child marriage in Washington, period,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond. “No exceptions.”

— By Grace Deng, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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