Senate passes amended ‘Child Bride Act’

By Matthew Young, RealWV

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The Senate concluded a wild day with an equally wild night on Friday, as bill after bill was hurried through the legislative process. Among the more contentious of those bills was HB 3018, which would establish 18 as the age of consent for marriage regardless of parental permission. 

The debate centered around a proposed amendment to the bill, which was explained by Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan. Trump began his explanation with an apology.

“I sort of botched the management of this bill in the Judiciary Committee the other night,” Trump said, referring to the committee’s chaotic, three-part Wednesday meeting. “I got a little bit rattled, and we did not end up with a full consideration of amendments or discussion that we would normally expect.”

Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, explains an amendment to HB 3018 in the Senate Chamber on March 10.

“We had to employ an unusual practice to get the bill to the floor of the Senate,” Trump added, again referring to Wednesday when Senate President Craig Blair requested the bill be reported without recommendation. “The bill failed in committee on a one-vote margin. I think had I been better at managing the committee on Wednesday night, none of that might have been necessary. Having said that, the sponsors of this amendment have crafted what we hope will be an acceptable compromise.” 

According to Trump, West Virginia has the highest child-marriage rate in the nation. Currently, there is no minimum age requirement in the state to obtain a marriage license. While HB 3018 (sponsored by Del. Kayla Young, D-Kanawha) would require that a person be 18-years-of-age, the amendment would make exceptions for those as young as 16-years – providing they have parental consent and their intended spouse is no more than four-years older.

“This amendment takes out all the provisions of our law which now allow someone under the age of 16 to get married,” Trump said. “I know this has been a contentious issue among a number of people. My hope is that this will be viewed as a reasonable and acceptable compromise.”

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, found it neither reasonable nor acceptable, saying, “I rise in opposition to the ‘Child Bride Act’ of 2023. We should stick at 18 (years old).”

Senate Minority Leader Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, speaks in opposition to the proposed amendment of HB 3018 in the Senate Chamber on March 10.

“Yes, things were different 20, 30, or 40 years ago, but not all stories end that way,” Woelfel continued. “I recall reading about a very young couple that got married. The pressure of their situation was so intense that he committed suicide, and she stabbed herself with his dagger. This is not a new problem.”

“Most of these child brides are 16 and 17,” Woelfel noted. “They cannot cast a vote at that age, or enter into a contract. Our state has invested a lot of money into improving our national image. Every time we have a debate like this – talking about child brides – we add to that negative image.”

“Let’s leave it at 18,” Woelfel concluded. “My God, it’s marriage.”

While the bill does allow for annulment under the age of 18, divorce would not be allowable until the individual seeking the divorce reaches the age of consent. 

Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, spoke in support of the amendment, saying, “I really believe that a lot of the problems that we have to deal with in this body are from erosion of the family. I think that marriage being under attack – I think that the traditional family being under attack – has cracked the foundation that a lot of West Virginians stand on, and, frankly, a lot of United States citizens stand on.”

Tarr explained how after his high school girlfriend became pregnant while they were both 17, they married while still in high school. Their son is now 32 years-old, and Tarr and his wife are still currently married.

“Being able to marry at 17-years-old gave that young man a family,” Tarr added. “There’s bonds that are created when you fall in love at any age. We were pretty mature for 17-year-olds, I’ll grant you that. But what I can tell you is that the ability to get married is what kept that family together. If we could not have gotten married then, I don’t know if I could have held that interest to go in and take that responsibility on after waiting a couple of years, and I don’t know how many others like me there are.”

Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, speaks in support of the amendment to HB 3018 in the Senate Chamber on March 10.

“What I do know is that the amendment we have before us protects families,” Tarr concluded. “And I think we need a lot more of those to bring us back to that traditional family protection. I do believe that the bill that came over was destructive to families. This amendment is not.”

At the conclusion of Tarr’s remarks, Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, rose to say, “No need for stories, just a statement: I support the amendment.” 

Trump then took the opportunity to close the debate, saying, “I know there are members of this body that want the minimum age in all cases to be 18. I would vote for that. In fact, I did vote for that – and it failed. That concerned me, and it concerns me now.”

“I’m pragmatic,” Trump added. “I want us to pass something because our current situation is intolerable. [While] there are comparatively few marriages under 16, I would submit to you that one is too many.”

HB 3018, as amended, was passed by a vote of 31 to one, with only Sen. Woelfel voting against. The bill will now be reported back to the House of Delegates.

RealWV will provide updates regarding HB 3018 as additional information is made available. 

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