Florida lawmakers pass plan to prevent child marriages

In an issue that drew widespread attention during this year’s legislative session, the House on Friday gave final approval to a measure that will largely block minors from getting married in Florida.

The bill (SB 140) is a compromise after the Senate initially sought to ban all marriages of people under age 18. House members, however, balked at a complete ban, pointing to circumstances such as 16- or 17-year-olds getting pregnant.

Gov. Rick Scott plans to sign the bill, a spokesman said Friday.

Under the compromise, state law would bar people under 18 from getting marriage licenses. But it would include an exception for 17-year-olds who have written consent from their parents or guardians. Also, the 17-year-olds could not marry people who are more than two years older than them.

The House voted 109-1 to pass the compromise, which was unanimously approved Monday by the Senate. Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, cast the only dissenting vote.

“This is an important issue for all of us in this state,” Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, said before the House vote.

The legislation emerged --- and became high profile --- because of the story of 58-year-old Sherry Johnson, who said she was forced to marry her adult rapist at age 11 after giving birth to child. Johnson lobbied for an outright ban on marriage licenses for people under 18, with Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, proposing a ban.

After Friday’s vote, Johnson said she was pleased with the outcome.

“I’m happy with the compromise,” she said. “Eighteen was my top goal, but I will settle for the 17 with all of the restrictions that come with it. I think that it is very gratifying to me.”

Under current law, minors age 16 and 17 can get marriage licenses with parental consent, and judges have discretion to issue licenses to younger minors if they have children or if pregnancies are involved.

But while Johnson, Benacquisto and others sought a total ban, the idea drew concerns in the House. Debate focused heavily on the issue of teens being able to marry if they get pregnant.

The House last month approved a proposal that would have allowed people who are age 16 or 17 to get married under certain circumstances that included pregnancy. The proposal would have allowed minors to only marry people who are no more than two years older. Also, the proposal would have required couples to verify pregnancies and for minors to get written consent from their parents or guardians.

After the House approved its proposal, Benacquisto and House sponsor Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, worked on the compromise that passed Friday.

--- News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban and staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this report.