A last-minute religious objection derailed the final passage of a bill Thursday that would have outlawed teenagers under 18 from getting married in New Jersey.
State Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, told NJ Advance Media he had been approached by members of the orthodox Jewish community requesting the legislation allow for religious exceptions.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, agreed to pull the bill from the voting session’s agenda at Schaer’s request, scuttling the bipartisan measure’s almost-certain passage.
The bill passed both houses of the Legislature in 2017, only to be conditionally vetoed by then-Gov. Chris Christie, citing the same concerns Schaer raised Thursday. Christie, a Republican, said he would sign the bill if it were rewritten to give a judge discretion to approve a marriage license for a 16 or 17 years old.
Schaer said he would seek the same change Christie recommended, out of deference to religious communities’ “history and rituals.”
“There are no special exceptions, no court involvement, no recognition of religious or ethnic tradition. It seems to me the bill could be made better and more representative of the communities throughout the state,” Schaer said. “I think the bill will almost certainly face lawsuits, and the bill can easily be improved without losing the importance of its message.”
State law currently permits 16- and 17-year-olds to obtain marriage licenses with parental consent. Those under 16 need both parental consent and approval from a judge.
The legislation would have required all couples to wait until both people turned 18 to get a marriage license.
The delay stunned and disappointed the bill’s sponsors and the members of Unchained At Last, a non-profit organization that helps young women and girls leave forced marriages, and lobbied for the bill. They said they only found out about the delay minutes before the Assembly’s 1 p.m. voting session.
Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, said she was “outraged” by Schaer’s “16th-century thinking.”
She’s counting on the bill’s sponsors to “stay strong” and fight to keep the language as-is. “Otherwise it’s a waste of a bill,” Reiss said.
State Health Department data says 3,628 minors got married in New Jersey from 1995 and 2015, and 95 percent of them were in the 16-to-17-year-old age bracket.
“When you are ending a human right abuse, why would you carve out an exemption for the people most affected by this human rights abuse?” Reiss said. “These are exactly the people who need protection.”
Reiss said her work with other young women who were married against their will has shown her that going before a judge does not provide the child any protection.
“We have worked with many survivors, and every single one we have worked said they have with lied to the judge,” pressured by their families. “They feel complicit in their own marriage.”
Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union, one of the prime sponsors of the bill said she is not interested in a compromise.
“The reasons we are passing this bill is because there have been exceptions in the past,” Munoz said.
“We don’t allow minors to do a lot of things – to vote, to drive. You can’t smoke a cigarette until you are 21,” Munoz said. “This is intended to protect minors, yet we somehow have lost track of the focus of the bill.”
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, also a sponsor, said he told the speaker he would listen to religious leaders’ concerns. He said he’s also been asked to consider an exception to minors who want to marry someone in the military.
Gusciora said he’s made no promises that he would amend the bill.
“This is something in which the culture and the religion are dragging the child along to a marriage they may or may not want,” Gusciora said.
The bill has the backing of National Organization for Women of New Jersey and Human Rights Watch.
Only Delaware has enacted a law setting the minimal age of 18 to get married.