Legislators have agreed to shelve a bill that would have placed an absolute ban on all marriages of people under 18 years of age in the state of New Jersey.
The bill had received unanimous committee approval and was nearly sure to pass an imminent floor vote. In a Democratic caucus session held this past Thursday, objections raised by Assemblyman Gary Schear (D-Passaic), that the bill failed to make accommodations for the customs of minority communities and others in need of exemptions, convinced Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) to put the measure aside.
“I raised some of my concerns with my colleagues; there was a feeling that they were justified and the leadership decided that it should be taken off the board,” he told Hamodia.
Assemblyman Schear said that he is supportive of the bill’s intentions to protect the safety and rights of children, but that a law without exceptions was not the way.
“The purpose of this bill is laudable, and we are all aware of the need to protect children, and that there are many instances of childhood marriage that are not appropriate, but it’s possible to accomplish those goals without negating the rights of communities and cultures with different traditions,” he said. “Some of the co-sponsors themselves did not know about all the ramifications this would have and agreed to take a more careful look at the issue.”
Last year the same bill passed both houses of the legislature overwhelmingly, but was stopped by a “conditional veto” from then-Gov. Chris Christie.
The former governor had aid that he would support such a bill if it would allow for 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent and the approval of a judge. At present, 16- and 17-year-olds can get married with parental consent and only those under 16 are required to appear before a judge.
Assemblyman Schear said that he would support the bill if it were to incorporate Governor Christie’s recommendations, yet for the time being it is off the Assembly’s schedule.
“The issue could be re-introduced; before it is, the leadership wants to know more about the topic and its effects,” he said. “We are hoping to see changes that are not just cosmetic, but that will address our concerns.”
The measure’s key sponsor, Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union) did not seem open to the idea of compromise.
“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,” she told NJ Advance Media in an interview. “This is intended to protect minors, yet we somehow have lost track of the focus of the bill.”
The bill was largely the product of lobbying by “Un-chained at Last,” a group that advocates against what it identifies as “arranged” and “forced” marriages. It is currently engaged in a campaign to introduce legislation barring minors from marrying in several states.
All 50 states have minimum ages for marriage, but nearly all allow for certain exceptions. This year, through the advocacy of “Un-chained,” Delaware became the first state to pass an absolute ban.
Rabbi Avi Schnall, New Jersey Director for the Agudath Israel of America, who first approached Assemblyman Schear to raise concerns over the bill, expressed his gratitude to the Passaic leygislator for what he called his “brave” intervention and said that his organization, too, could support the measure if room was made for reasonable exceptions.
“We could support the bill if it allowed for normal religious accommodations,” he told Hamodia. “The basic idea of protecting children has merit, but it has to have flexibility.”