JUNEAU — The Alaska House of Representatives unexpectedly amended a proposed marriage-reform bill Wednesday to prohibit children ages 15 and younger from being married in the state.
Current state law allows children to be married as young as 14 with the approval of a judge.
During debate on legislation to change the number of witnesses required for a marriage, Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, proposed an amendment to raise the minimum marriage age to 16, Alaska’s age of consent. Parental approval would be required for marriages involving children between 16 and 18.
The House approved Rasmussen’s amendment, 33-3. It does not become law unless the House and Senate approve the underlying bill and it’s signed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
“This is, in my opinion, probably one of the most significant things that we can do as a legislative body this session,” Rasmussen said.
There were eight requests for approval between 1990 and 2021, according to figures provided by the Alaska Court System. Four were approved, none since 2006, according to court system records and the state’s office of vital statistics.
Between 2006 and 2015, the state recorded eight divorces involving people younger than 15. In one of those cases, the teen’s spouse was at least 55 years old.
Statistics for teen marriages are less precise. From 2016 through 2020, there were 1,672 marriages involving at least one person between 15 and 19, about 6.9% of all marriages during that period.
Rasmussen said she introduced her proposal after attending an informational session about sex trafficking.
“And one of the things they highlighted was child marriage as an issue. So when the bill came up, I said this could be a good vehicle to change that statute and, you know, start to protect children,” she said.
The three votes against the proposal came from Reps. David Eastman, R-Wasilla; Christopher Kurka, R-Wasilla; and DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer.
Eastman said the change would not prohibit someone underage from traveling to another state and getting married. California, for example, allows a person under 18 to be married with the consent of one parent and a judge.
“I don’t think that changing this law is actually going to be improving anything,” he said.
Kurka echoed some of Eastman’s comments, saying that “putting a one-size-fits-all approach on the whole state is a mistake.”
Johnson said her mother was married at age 14 and “sometimes people become adults at a young age.”
Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, voted in support of the amendment. She said that given other restrictions on young Alaskans, allowing them to marry doesn’t make sense.
“I asked my 12-year-old daughter. I’m like, ‘What do you think of this?’ And she said, ‘If a 14-, 15-year-old gets married, technically, they’re not at the age to be able to have a good job. So how would they be able to provide for each other?’ That’s a really good point, because you can’t legally hold a knife in a job until you’re 16,” Vance said.
(State regulations prohibit children ages 14 and 15 from using “sharpened tools” on the job and block them from a variety of occupations.)
Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, is the author of the underlying bill and voted in support of Rasmussen’s amendment.
He said he doesn’t consider it “a big sea change” because the number of child marriages is so small. He believes other segments of the bill, such as the requirement for only one witness instead of two, may have a larger effect because they benefit businesses providing “destination weddings” here.
He expects the bill has enough support to pass the House and said he will work on finding support in the Senate.
If the bill does not pass by the time the Legislature adjourns, it would have to be reintroduced in 2023 and start the legislative process anew.
[Correction: The initial version of this article incorrectly reported the number of marriages involving people ages 15 to 19 years old from 2016 through 2020. It is 1,672, not 2,113.]