South Carolina Statehouse (copy) (copy)

A new law bans teenagers younger than 16 from getting married in South Carolina. Some lawmakers want to pass a bill restricting marriage to those 18 and older. File/Andrew Brown/Staff 

A new law signed by Gov. Henry McMaster this year bans teenagers younger than 16 from getting married. Now, some of the same politicians who helped pass that bill want South Carolina to become one of the first states to outlaw all marriage under the age of 18. 

"I think that would be wonderful if we could do that. I think South Carolina is ready to do that," said Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican, who co-sponsored the bill McMaster signed.

The legislation closed a longstanding loophole in South Carolina that allowed children of any age to get married if they became pregnant or had given birth. 

The Post and Courier published an investigation in 2018 showing thousands of teenage girls, some of them as young as 12 and 14, have been married in South Carolina in recent years. In some cases, these girls have wed men who were much older. The newspaper revealed, since 1997, dozens of South Carolina men in their 40s, 50s and 60s have married teenage girls who were not yet 18.

Legislation to close the pregnancy loophole garnered widespread bipartisan support in the General Assembly this year. It passed unanimously in both chambers. But a stricter law banning all marriage under the age of 18 will be a tougher sell, Shealy said. 

"I think we have some people in our Legislature who wouldn’t vote for that," she said. "Maybe in a couple years, but we got this (bill) passed. This was a big hurdle. If we wait a couple years ... if we get a few more women in the Legislature, a few more women in the Senate."

Women make up less than 16 percent of the South Carolina General Assembly, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Meanwhile, only New Jersey and Delaware have passed laws banning all marriage under 18. Pennsylvania is poised to become the third. Most states, including South Carolina, allow teenagers younger than 18 to marry. Some states set no minimum age.  

Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, a Lancaster Democrat, has repeatedly introduced legislation in recent years to close the pregnancy loophole. She told the newspaper last year that her own grandmother was married at 13 in the 1930s.

Powers Norrell said she was thrilled when McMaster signed the new law in May and credited The Post and Courier's investigation for shining a spotlight on child marriage in South Carolina. 

"(The) story changed a lot of people’s perceptions," she said. 

Like Shealy, Powers Norrell wants to ban all marriage under 18, but said further change will probably take time. She pointed out that next year's session is shorter and politicians in both chambers of the General Assembly will be running for reelection in 2020.

"There will be a lot of grandstanding on typical issues in the coming year," she said. 

A bill introduced in January by Shealy and Sen. Brad Hutto, an Orangeburg Democrat, would ban all marriage under 18 in South Carolina. It has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

McMaster told a reporter during a press conference on Thursday that he understood a bill had been introduced, but wouldn't indicate his willingness to sign it into law if it was passed by the General Assembly. 

"There are a lot of complexities and important questions to answer before we move forward," the governor said. 

Deanna Winters won't be tracking the legislation closely — she lives in western North Carolina — but she wants to see it passed.

In 1987, when Winters was 14 years old, a probate judge in Upstate South Carolina granted her a marriage license. She had already given birth to a child. Her marriage lasted less than a year. 

Winters was encouraged to hear that South Carolina's new law would prohibit a 14-year-old from getting married under any circumstances, but she thinks 16-year-olds are still too young. 

"I don’t even think 18-year-olds are ready for marriage, to be honest," she said. 

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Reporter Adam Benson contributed to this article. Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.