Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bill to ban child marriage gets unanimous support in Washington House, moves to Senate

The Washington state House of Representatives convened Monday and passed a bill that would ban child marriage in the state.  (Ellen Dennis / The Spokesman-Review)

Child marriage is still legal in Washington, and on Monday state lawmakers moved along a proposed law to ban it.

Today, children of any age can get married in the state. If they’re 17, they need parental consent. If they’re younger than that, they need approval from a judge.

State law currently says a judge may grant permission for a child younger than 17 to get married “out of necessity.” But the law doesn’t outline what that so-called necessity looks like.

On the first day of the 2024 legislative session, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to ban marriages of anyone under the age of 18.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, previously said the vague nature of the child marriage law’s wording is often interpreted to indicate that one person entering the marriage is pregnant.

Ten states have banned child marriage, Stonier said Monday on the House floor.

“Young people who are married before they are legal adults do not have access to the full range of legal services, counseling, therapy, financial support they might need, if they were in a coercive or abusive relationship,” Stonier said. “Especially in a marriage where they’re legally bound.”

State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, also spoke on the floor in favor of the ban and urged his colleagues to vote “yes.”

“What this bill does is acknowledges that minor children cannot consent to all of life’s choices,” Walsh said.

Some lawmakers in Olympia for several years have been pushing to eliminate child marriage. Under the current law, when two people get married in Washington, their local county auditor asks each person to provide paperwork to prove that they are at least 18 years old.

A license can also be granted to a person who is 17 if they have consent from a parent or legal guardian.

In Washington, about four out of every 1,000 minors between the ages of 15 and 17 are married, according to a 2016 report by the Pew Research Center.

Rates of child marriage vary by state. It is most common in the South. In West Virginia and Texas, roughly seven out of every 1,000 15- to 17-year-olds were married in 2014.

In the United States, child marriage remains legal in roughly 40 states. Nearly 300,000 children were legally married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018, according to a study by Unchained At Last, a nonprofit organization that advocates against child marriage.

Also in the United States, immigration law does not specify a minimum age to petition for a foreign spouse or fiancé to be the beneficiary of a spousal or engagement visa.

This allows for children around the world to be “trafficked into the U.S. under the guise of marriage,” according to the study. “The U.S. approved nearly 9,000 petitions involving a minor between 2007 and 2017, and in 95% of them, the younger party was a girl.”

The child marriage ban awaits introduction into the state Senate. This year’s legislative session lasts 60 days, until March 7.