A bill that places an absolute ban on all marriages of people under 18 in the state of New Jersey has passed both houses of the legislature and seems poised to become law.
Two weeks ago, the measure had been removed from the Assembly’s voting schedule after Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) argued that the present text failed to make accommodations for the customs of minority communities and others in need of exemptions. Since then, the lobby group largely responsible for the bill initiated a vitriolic campaign against the Assemblyman and was successful in securing the legislation’s passage.
“In a democracy, very often it’s the loudest voices that get heard, and that’s what happened here,” Assemblyman Schaer told Hamodia. “There was a war of words that was carried on in the newspapers, largely based on misinformation that was harmful to meaningful discussion of the issue. Once that happened, it became apparent that no more good could come out of any attempt to discuss the matter civilly.”
Last year, the same bill passed both houses of the legislature overwhelmingly, but was stopped by a “conditional veto” from then-Gov. Chris Christie, who said that a total ban would infringe on the practices of some religious minorities, but that he would support a measure that allowed for 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with the consent of parents and a judge.
The legislation was re-introduced this term and, when it was poised to pass the Assembly, Schaer was contacted by Rabbi Avi Schnall, New Jersey director for Agudath Israel of America, who raised concerns over passing a ban which left no room for exemptions.
The assemblyman raised these concerns in a Democratic caucus session, but said that he would be supportive of the bill, amended along the lines of the former governor’s suggestions.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) was initially receptive and agreed to call off an imminent floor vote. At that point, “Unchained at Last,” a group that advocates against what it identifies as “arranged” and “forced” marriages, initiated a public campaign to bring the bill to a vote. The group is led by a former member of the Orthodox community who, in an open letter to a prominent New Jersey newspaper, took aim at Assemblyman Schaer, falsely accusing him of blocking the bill based on a religious imperative from the Torah. The letter, which gained wide media attention, equated the process of a traditional Jewish marriage with abuse of women.
Amid the pressure, the Assembly put the bill up for a vote. It passed overwhelmingly on Thursday. According to reports, Gov. Phil Murphy had pledged to sign the bill into law.
Every state has a minimum age for marriage, but most allow for exemptions. This year, through the advocacy of “Unchained,” Delaware became the first state to pass an absolute ban.
“I was also committed to protecting young women from inappropriate marriages and was working toward a way to do that without negating the rights of communities with different cultures,” Schaer said. “It’s disappointing that a ridiculous and hurtful article put an end to that effort.”