“While the legislation falls short of raising the age of marriage to 18, the governor supports this step toward ending child marriage in North Carolina and more protections for children,” Mary Scott Winstead, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement to CNN on Wednesday.
Currently, girls as young as 14 who are pregnant or expecting can get married to the babies’ fathers in North Carolina if they receive permission from judges, and boys as young as 14 can also legally marry the mothers of their born or unborn babies if they’re similarly granted permission from judges. But under SB35, the minimum age at which a minor could wed would be 16, with children that age or 17 needing either permission from parents or guardians or approval from judges to tie the knot.
The judge’s approval would come only after they determined that “the marriage will serve the best interest of an underage party,” according to the legislation, which also requires the age gap between a 16- or 17-year-old and their prospective spouse to be no more than four years.
If signed by Cooper, the measure would go into effect immediately and would apply to marriage licenses “pending or issued on or after” the date he approved it.
While the legislation doesn’t ban child marriages outright, it would move the state closer in line with rules set by other states around the US that require parental approval for minors to get married.
Though most states set the minimum marriage age at 18, exceptions in 44 states allow children under 18 to be married, according to Unchained At Last, an organization that advocates for an end to forced and child marriage. The group says that 14 states, including North Carolina, currently allow children under 16 to wed.
North Carolina Republican state Sen. Vickie Sawyer, one of the sponsors of SB35, said on Wednesday that the measure “will protect our most vulnerable youth from the detrimental harms of forced child marriage, which among other things include abuse and exploitation.”
“I’m thrilled we were able to pass this legislation with unanimous, bi-partisan support,” she said in a statement to CNN, adding, “We’re taking huge steps in the right direction on the issue of child marriage with this legislation.”
About 248,000 children were married in the US between 2000 and 2010, according to an analysis by Unchained At Last. A majority of the children were young girls married to adult men. Some of the children were married at ages or had spousal age differences that meant sexual relations between the couples would have legally constituted statutory rape, the organization said.
CNN’s Harmeet Kaur contributed to this report.