New Jersey law currently permits 16- and 17-year-olds to obtain marriage licenses with parental consent. All states in the union, with the sole exception of Delaware, allow minors to marry in certain circumstances, such as parental consent and/or judicial consent — and most states allow parties aged 16 and 17 to marry with parental consent alone.
That approach to marriage is not only respectful of individual rights (which are afforded minors no less than older Americans), but of ethnic and religious communities where it is not uncommon for young people to get married.
Unfortunately, New Jersey is poised to join Delaware in the outlier arena, as legislation was approved last Thursday by the State Assembly to deny marriage licenses to couples with a member under 18 years of age.
The New Jersey Senate passed the measure 30-5 in April, and Thursday’s Assembly vote was a similarly lopsided 59-0 with 12 abstentions. The bill has been sent to the state’s Democratic Governor Phil Murphy for final approval or a veto.
Legislation to protect young people from being forced into marriages against their will would not garner opposition. But a bill aimed at preventing young people — who can easily be more intelligent, discerning and wise than many older citizens — from marrying, even with the full consent of their parents, is not only unnecessary, it infringes on the rights of members of religious communities, including Jewish ones.
That fact was recognized by former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who opposed the bill during his tenure, writing that “an exclusion without exceptions would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions.” He issued a “conditional veto” of the bill at the time but said that he would support a measure that allowed for 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with the consent of parents and a judge.
Organizations including New Jersey Right to Life and the New Jersey State Bar Association are likewise opposed to the outright marriage ban on anyone under 18, calling instead for a ban on anyone 15 or younger while allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to get married with judicial review.
The personal freedom ball was picked up and played vigorously by New Jersey Assemblyman Gary Schaer, (D-Passaic), who was prominent among the bill’s opponents, and who criticized the legislation’s “black-and-white” nature and its lack of reasonable exceptions.
Although Mr. Schaer’s efforts proved insufficient to move enough other legislators to kill the bill, he emerged as the hero here, with his determination to make the case that a lack of exceptions was a fatal flaw.
Among the less-than-heroic actors was a group called “Unchained at Last,” which agitates against what it calls “arranged” and “forced” marriages, and rejected any exceptions to the bill. The group is headed by a former member of the Orthodox community who describes herself as having come from a broken family and as having been pressured into what she says became an abusive marriage.
In an open letter to a prominent New Jersey newspaper, the activist, who self-identifies as “a devout atheist” who has had “enough religion in the first 32 years of my life to last several lifetimes,” took aim at Assemblyman Schaer, falsely accusing him of blocking the bill based on a religious imperative from the Torah. The letter gained wide attention and, with the help of sympathetic, if less than critically-thinking, media, brought many, including legislators, to somehow equate the parent-guided process of a traditional Jewish marriage with abuse of women.
The agitator may have had a deeply unhappy personal experience with the sort of marriage that overwhelmingly results in dedicated and caring couples and happy families. But whatever problems she faced would not have been prevented by the legislation she so ardently endorsed. She married at 19.
The law, moreover, won’t have great practical impact on the Orthodox community. Many Rabbanim, true, will not wish to be mesader kiddushin for couples barred by law from getting a marriage license. But such couples will, for the price of a bridge toll, be able to legally marry in more enlightened New York if they choose.
That fact highlights the “Unchained” group’s underlying agenda, which is less the protection of young people than the besmirching of the traditional Jewish community of her birth that, for whatever reason, she grew to despise.
We hope that, despite the misinformation and pejorative misrepresentation of Mr. Schaer’s position, New Jersey’s Governor Murphy will see the compelling reason in ensuring that the bill at issue not become law without sensible exceptions, and veto it in its present form.