Ages of Marriages 04.JPG (copy)

This 1982 marriage register shows a 15 year-old girl married a 33 year-old man in Gaffney, South Carolina. To this day, child marriages continue to be sanctioned in some South Carolina counties. Some elected officials have recently proposed changing the state law. 

Republican and Democratic lawmakers filed two bills this week in the state House of Representatives to shore up the minimum age for marriage in South Carolina. 

Both bills address an existing South Carolina law that sets no minimum age for marriage if the bride is pregnant or has given birth.

The proposed laws have been introduced at a time when other states are taking a fresh look at the minimum age for marriage. Earlier this year, Delaware and New Jersey became the first states to eliminate all marriages under the age of 18.

Like South Carolina, most states still offer loopholes that allow minors to get married under certain circumstances.

One of the new bills, introduced by Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, a Lancaster Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor this year, would amend South Carolina's law to make certain children under 16 do not marry. 

Another proposed bill, sponsored by Rep. Beth Berstein, D-Columbia, Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, and Rep. Neal Collins, R-Easley, would strike the pregnancy exception from state law. 

Collins said the bill has the backing of the Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children, which includes six legislators and several agency heads. 

"The intent behind it is to make it crystal clear that no child under the age of 16 may marry," he said. 

The Post and Courier published an investigation this year that found almost 7,000 underage girls — some as young as 12 and 13 — have wed older males in South Carolina during the past 20 years.

While state law technically sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, South Carolina also allows 16 and 17 year olds to wed with their parents’ permission. The pregnancy exception, signed into law decades ago, allows children of any age to get married if the bride can show proof that she is pregnant or has given birth and if as least one of her parents consents to the union. 

The Post and Courier reported this year that the state's marriage laws are interpreted differently by the state's probate judges. Those judges, who are elected and not required to hold law degrees, are left to decide if teenagers younger than 16 may wed. 

Collins said the bill he co-sponsored was written to eliminate any uncertainty among probate judges. 

"I think it would be difficult for someone to argue against it," he said. 

Norrell filed a bill during the last legislative session that would have explicitly prohibited marriage under the age of 16. It received no support. She told The Post and Courier earlier this year that her own grandmother wed at 13 years old. 

“My goodness, nobody under 16 should be getting married — pregnant or not,” Norrell said. 

Both bills proposed this week have been referred to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration. 

They were filed one week after Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican, introduced her own bill in the S.C. Senate that would likewise eliminate South Carolina's pregnancy exception. 

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.