JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Senate is moving forward on legislation to raise the minimum age of marriage in Missouri. 

Currently, in the Show-Me State, 16 and 17-year-olds can get married to anyone under the age of 21 as long as they have parental consent. Senate Bill 767 would eliminate that loophole by prohibiting marriage licenses for anyone under the age of 18. Those supporting the bipartisan legislation say this protects children from physical, emotional and sexual abuse. 

“We’re not telling someone they can’t marry the person they love; we’re just saying that children aren’t allowed to engage in legal contracts until they are 18,” Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, said. 

Missouri is on the path to joining nearly a dozen other states in banning child marriage. 

“Missouri is one of the states that has the highest number of sex trafficking and child exploitation, and our lax marriage laws is one of the things attributing to that,” Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Sikeston, said. 

The legislation, changing the legal marriage age to 18 with no exceptions, is co-sponsored by Arthur and Rehder. Rehder has shared her personal story multiple times this year, explaining how she was married at age 15 to her 21-year-old boyfriend. 

“This is an adult decision; it doesn’t need to be made by your parent, or in my case, by me, who then talked my parent into signing the paper,” Rehder said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “This is an adult decision, and it needs to be made when you’re an adult.” As a child that was married, I can unequivocally say that this is a terrible idea.”

Back in 2018, the General Assembly passed legislation to raise the minimum age from 15 to 16 with a parent’s written permission. Lawmakers also changed state statutes to prohibit anyone age 21 or older from marrying a minor. 

“We have an opportunity to do something and to prevent more horrific stories from taking place, and from a policy standpoint, it makes sense,” Arthur said. 

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Last month, Rebecca Hurst shared her story at a press conference held by Arthur and Rehder. Hurst pleads for lawmakers to change state law, explaining how when she was 16, her mother pushed her to marry a 22-year-old who forced her to have kids with him. 

“Parents cannot always be trusted to make the best decisions for their child,” Hurst said while holding back tears. “Letting a child marry is definitely not a good parental decision.”

According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, between 2019 and 2021, roughly 230 minors were married in Missouri. The department said about 75% of those marriages were girls under the age of 18. 

Rehder said that before the law in 2018 went into effect, 8,000 Missouri children were married between 2000 and 2018. 

During Wednesday’s debate, three additional provisions were added to the legislation, including who is responsible for the costs of a divorce proceeding. 

“If you have to take your ex-spouse back to court to get them to do what they’ve already been ordered to do in court, then they have to pay for the fees that you are being charged to make them do what they’ve already been told to do,” Rehder said. 

Another measure added to the bill would require sheriffs and other law enforcement officials to enforce the rights of custody or visitation agreements. The third provision would allow judges to consider a child’s “physical, emotional education and other needs” when determining child custody. 

The bill needs one final vote from the Senate before heading over to the House, which could come as soon as Thursday.