Why New Jersey’s Orthodox fight a bill to outlaw child marriages

Why New Jersey’s Orthodox fight a bill to outlaw child marriages

Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, addresses a recent rally opposing child marriages.
Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, addresses a recent rally opposing child marriages.

A bill that would ban teenagers under 18 from getting married in New Jersey has been stalled because of opposition from the state’s charedi Orthodox community.

Agudath Israel of America, the national charedi organization, says it supports the bill but that its provisions are too strict. Citing child marriages that take place in observant Jewish communities, it wants to see an exemption made for older teenagers who want to wed.

Saying that “any marriage under the age of 18 is illegal seems a bit extreme,” Rabbi Avi Schnall, the group’s New Jersey director, said. “It’s a cultural thing, mostly in the Sephardic community; culturally they tend to get married younger. It’s not a biblical obligation — most of our girls don’t get married under 18 — it’s a cultural thing.

“It’s part of their heritage.”

Jewish activists are driving both sides of the debate. The main group lobbying for the bill is Unchained at Last, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that opposes underage marriage. The group’s founder, Fraidy Reiss, who grew up charedi, says child marriage, primarily of girls to older men, is an abusive practice that can damage children emotionally and physically.

“Marriage before 18 can so easily be a forced marriage or it can turn into a forced marriage,” Ms. Reiss said. “You’re subjecting this girl to a human rights abuse. It destroys girls’ health, their education, their economic opportunities. It significantly increases the risk that they’ll be beaten by their spouse. It literally destroys girls’ lives.”

Under New Jersey law, 16- and 17-year-olds are allowed to marry with parental consent, and children 15 and younger are allowed to marry with the permission of a judge. The bill would outlaw both of those practices. If the bill passes, it would make New Jersey only the second state in the country to ban child marriage. Delaware banned the practice earlier this year.

The bill is supported by a majority of the state’s General Assembly, the legislature’s lower house. A similar bill passed both houses of the state legislature last year, but then-Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, required that the bill include the amendment Agudath is seeking, which would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with the permission of their parents and a judge.

“Minors must be protected, and we applaud the attempt of the sponsors to protect children and underage girls from very unfortunate situations,” Agudah’s Rabbi Schnall said. “A 17-year-old girl shouldn’t be getting married by herself, on her own. Take her before a judge.

“We have confidence that the judge will make the right decision.”

But the bill’s sponsors disagree, and have reintroduced it this year now that Democratic Governor Phil Murphy has replaced Mr. Christie. The current bill was set to come to a vote last week, but was removed from the agenda after Assemblyman Gary Schaer of Passaic, who has spoken with Agudath on the issue, raised concerns about it. Mr. Schaer — who is Orthodox — has said he opposes the bill because of Agudath’s objections.

But when he talked about it, Mr. Schaer avoided discussing religion, and said instead that he just believes the bill is too absolute. To illustrate his qualms, he gave the hypothetical example of a 17-year-old girl who is pregnant but cannot marry the baby’s father because the law would forbid it.

“To have a situation where we’re creating an absolute — if you’re 18 you can get married, if you’re under 18 you can’t — that to me is a problem,” he said. “There needs to be some room for maneuvering, for the reality of the human condition.”

Despite Mr. Schaer’s opposition, the bill is expected to pass the Assembly vote this week, and once it clears both houses Mr. Murphy is expected to sign it. The bill’s lead sponsor, Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz of Summit, noted that of more than 3,000 minors married in New Jersey between 1995 and 2015, 95 percent were either 16 or 17. So if an exemption were created for 16- and 17-year-olds, she said, the bill would be pointless.

Ms. Munoz, who is a nurse by profession, said that safeguarding the rights of children is a focus of hers as a legislator. She said that religious concerns should not trump protections afforded by secular law.

“We’re doing the bill so there won’t be exceptions to it,” she said. “Much of my legislation has to do with protecting the people from abuse and put them in a safe situation. We don’t allow 16-year-olds to drive a car. We don’t allow 17-year-olds to vote.

“The age of majority in New Jersey is 18.”

Ms. Reiss, who attended a charedi Orthodox high school, remembers going to parties for classmates who got married while they still were in school. She says that entering a marriage as a child is a situation fraught with danger, because children are not allowed to leave home, enter into their own contracts, or retain an attorney. She said it’s unclear if a child is allowed to file for divorce in New Jersey. She also noted that the State Department considers child marriage to be gender discrimination and a human rights issue.

She said that given how vulnerable children are, it would be wrong to make child marriage subject to the review of a judge — no matter the child’s age.

“We know the judicial review process is not protecting children,” Ms. Reiss said. “We’re going to apply that flawed process to the 95 percent of children affected by the exemption? It’s like banning age discrimination practices, except for job candidates over age 50.”

JTA Wire Service

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