West Virginia Senators Reject Bans on child marriage, Spousal Rape

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A bill to keep minors from marrying in West Virginia was defeated Wednesday in a late-night Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.

The committee rejected a vote to report House Bill 3018 to the full Senate by a vote of nine to eight.

As West Virginia law stands, there is no minimum age to marry. Children can marry as young as 16 in West Virginia, with parental consent. Anyone younger than that must get a judge’s waiver.

This legislation would have removed these exceptions and made the age of consent for marriage 18 years old.

Del. Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, was the lead sponsor of the bill. Before the vote, she spoke to the committee, citing statistics from the Pew Research Center showing that West Virginia has the country’s highest child marriage rate.

Young said that since 2012, seven marriages out of 100 performed in West Virginia involved someone under 18. She also told the committee that 753 marriages involving children have been performed since 2000.

“I know that there are a lot of people who maybe their parents were married as a child or they had a baby when they were under 18,” Young said. “But this bill sets out to set the legal age of marriage at 18. There are a few reasons for that. The biggest reason is children don’t have the same legal rights as adults do, they can’t sign a contract, they can’t get a lease, they can’t open a bank account, they can’t get a protective order, they can’t file for divorce, because they’re under 18 years old.”

Young also spoke about the negative outcomes of marriage under 18, stating the divorce rate for people under 18 is 80 percent, which is 30 percent higher than the national average for adults.

“The last big problem is that this really undermines our statutory rape laws because right now, the age of consent for sex is 16, the age of marriage is zero. There’s no floor. All the states around us at least have the floor, we don’t have anything,” Young said. “So this would set it at 18. And the data that we’ve seen shows that there have been 41 cases that would have violated our rape laws because one of the children was under the age of 16.”

The committee had no questions for Young. However, before they could move to report the bill to the entire Senate floor, Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, made a motion to table the bill.

That motion failed by a narrow vote of 8 in favor and nine opposed.

The committee then returned to their pending question of whether to report the bill to the full Senate.

The motion to report House Bill 3018 to the Senate floor failed with Sens. Mike Azinger, Laura Chapman, Mark Hunt, Patrick Martin, Mark Maynard, Patricia Rucker, David Stover, Mike Stuart, and Jay Taylor voting against it.

After the bill was rejected, Sen. Mike Woefel, D-Cabell, asked to speak to the committee.

“I just wanted to remind everyone in the room that this is National Women’s Day,” he said.

Young tweeted the following statement after the vote.

“Senate Judiciary voted down HB3018, the bill to end Child Marriage in WV,” she wrote. “They first moved to table the bill without discussion, which failed, so they killed it instead. For now, there will be no floor for the age of marriage in WV, endangering our kids.”

By the same 8-9 margin, committee members voted to remove a clause from a strike-and-insert amendment to a separate bill that would have closed a loophole in West Virginia law that currently makes many instances of spousal rape legal in West Virginia.

The amendment proposed by Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, would have inserted the spousal rape ban into a bill making it a crime to solicit adult members of law enforcement to present themselves as minors online.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, said he supported a ban on spousal rape but warned committee members that the provision could backfire. If lawmakers added it to the bill, the measure would return to the House for approval and could prove divisive.

The debate was long. Sen. Vince Deeds, R-Greenbrier, urged the inclusion of the spousal rape ban, citing his experience in law enforcement seeing multiple cases go unpunished. Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, warned that he believed the ban would lead to false accusations of rape in divorce cases.

In one of his most vigorous speeches this session, Trump urged the committee to ignore the possibility of the bill failing in the House in the hope of fixing a loophole in West Virginia law he called “wrong — morally wrong.”

“I hope with all my heart that the committee will not be swayed with the siren song of, ‘oh, a woman might make a false accusation,’” Trump added. “So what? If the woman makes a false accusation, the police aren’t gonna charge it. They’re going to investigate it.” Trump noted that the U.S. justice system still requires guilt to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Ultimately, the amendment failed, meaning the loophole allowing marital rape will stay in West Virginia law.

The committee meeting coincided with International Women’s Day, and several lawmakers who voted to ban child marriage and spousal rape noted the fact. But so did Sens. Rucker and Laura Walkim Chapman, R-Ohio, who voted against the marriage bill and the rape amendment.

“One of the things about celebrating women, discussing women is for way too long women were sidelined, were not given a voice, were not given a role, basically had others speak for us. And I will tell you I do not appreciate that others are speaking for me,” Rucker said. “The two women in this committee favor the amendment to the amendment, and I don’t know how you can claim that we want women to be abused, raped, or anything else.”