Eighteen to marry bill clears deadline

by Brian Bahouth

A wedding chapel in Reno, NV - image - Brian Bahouth

Reno – If made law, AB139 would simply require a person be a minimum of 18 years old to be married in Nevada. During the first hearing for the bill in Assembly Judiciary on March 5 of this year, women offered horrifying testimony of forced marriages and a description of Nevada as a haven for underage marriages. There currently is no minimum age to marry in Nevada. The bill passed the Assembly on April 16 on a 23 to 8 vote with 2 excused. On Friday, the Senate Judiciary committee made a unanimous do pass recommendation, and now the measure goes to a vote of the full Senate.

According to bill sponsor Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod, the genesis for AB139 came when she learned there was no minimum age to marry in Nevada.

Hear Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod presentation of AB139 to the Assembly Judiciary committee on March 5, 2019.

“In Nevada, a person must be at least 18 years of age to get married. Unfortunately, there are two gaping loopholes,” Bilbray-Axelrod said to the Assembly Judiciary committee on March 5 of this year. “If a person is less than 18 years of age, and at least 16 years old. All that is needed is consent of either parent and typically just a signature on a form. For a child who’s under the age of 16, that person must have the consent of a parent, as well as the approval of a judge in order for a judge to allow the child to be married. The judge must affirm two things, that there is in fact parental consent, and also make the determination that the marriage will serve, quote, ‘in the best interest of the child.’ This is ironic because the US State Department considers marriage before 18, a human rights abuse. So based on that, how could a child entering into the contract of marriage ever be in the best interest of a child?”

How frequently are people under 18 married in Nevada?

During testimony on AB139, Assemblywoman Bilbray-Axelrod noted that the state does not collect marriage age data but that Clark County does. All counties record age data when issuing a marriage license, but Clark is the only Nevada county to publish the information.

“From 2005 to 2015, 5,146 children were married in the county (Clark County). Out of the marriages that we were able to track in Nevada, 80 percent of the marriages had at least one participant who were from out of state or out of the country. These people are coming to our state to take advantage of our lax marriage laws,” Bilbray-Axelrod said.

Nevada Capital News attempted to collect marriage age data from every county clerk in Nevada and asked for hard data, and in lieu of that we asked for anecdotal information. Based on our informal survey, the number of under 18 marriages occurring in rural counties is very small with no recent evidence that anyone under 16 has been married in any other county than Washoe over the past decade. In Washoe County, the county clerk recently conducted a marriage age data analysis for the last 20 years.

Total marriages conducted between March 1999 and 2019 – 272,641

Total marriages of people younger than 18 – 9,352, 3.4 percent of all marriages conducted – 960 Boys, 8,392 Girls.

Instances of an adult, over 18, marrying a person under 18 – 522

One hundred seventy six people under the age of 16 were married in Washoe County during the 20 year study period, 1 boy, 175 girls.

The youngest male to marry in Washoe County over the past 20 years, 15 years old. The youngest female, 13.

The Pew Research Center has done some analysis of child marriage rates, and according to the study, rates vary widely state to state. West Virginia and Texas topped the list based on 2014 data. The study also cited Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, California, and Nevada for having above average rates of child marriage.

Kimberly Mull offered testimony in support of AB139 on March 5 in Assembly Judiciary. She spoke on behalf of the Tahirih Justice Center and discussed the group’s research in Nevada regarding child marriage. According to the center’s analysis, 80 percent of child marriages in Clark County over the last three years had at least one party from out of state.

Hear Kimberly Mull speak in support of AB139.

“So if you’re bringing one party from out of state to marry them, or a child into Nevada to marry them off, in my opinion, as a professional in this field, is a form of trafficking,” Mull said. “Personally, on the record, I am supporting this bill as a survivor of child trafficking.  If 80 percent of these people come into our state from another state or another country, they are coming into our state because of our lax laws, because they can’t get married in their state or their country. We are essentially being used as a form of, as a trafficker,” Mull said.

In 1984, at the age of 16, Elizabeth Taylor was driven to Nevada from California, where she was married off against her will to a 28-year-old man. Taylor described being separated from her natural family and forced to live in a commune with a guru. Taylor’s “stepfather” controlled as many as 150 children, Taylor described. When she was coerced into marrying an older man, cult members decided to take her to Las Vegas for the wedding.

Hear Elizabeth Taylor speak in support of AB139.

“The entire way there I was hoping that someone would notice that this is not of my choosing and report these people to the authorities, but no one stood up for me and no judge even asked me whether I wanted to get married when we arrived in Nevada. In fact, there wasn’t a judge.

“Please note, and this is key to the bill, but even if I had been asked by a judge, I wouldn’t have felt safe enough to tell them that I was being married off against my will because I had nowhere to go. My father had no legal rights over me, and I would have just returned to the cult in worse shape and circumstances.”

Taylor was ultimately able to escape and divorce her husband and create a family of her choosing. She earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees and has enjoyed a full life and career, but Taylor may be the exception, and the legal context that enabled her arranged marriage in Nevada has not changed.

“What happened to me in 1984 could happen to any young girl today in Nevada,” Taylor told lawmakers.

AB139 sponsor Assemblywoman Bilbray-Axelrod reminded her fellow lawmakers that 18 to marry is not an arbitrary number.

“You have to be over the age of 18 to vote, join the military, obtain a loan without a cosigner, donate blood, be an organ donor, work a full time job, obtain a driving permit, or obtain a commercial driver’s license or purchase tobacco,” Bilbray-Axelrod said. “So I urge your support on this bill, AB139.”