Florida may soon have one of the country’s strictest child marriage laws after state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a bill barring marriage for those under the age of 17.
The bill passed the House on a 109-1 vote on Friday. Republican Rep. George Moraitis was the sole representative to vote no. He’d said previously that it was “very reasonable” for children aged 16 or older to marry with parental consent.
The bill now heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who’s expected to sign it into law.
Activists hailed the new legislation as an important milestone in the fight to end child marriage in the U.S. “My heart is happy,” rape survivor Sherry Johnson, who was 11 when she was forced to marry her 20-year-old assailant, told The Associated Press. “My goal was to protect our children and I feel like my mission has been accomplished.”
Johnson, who was in the visitor’s gallery during the House vote, has campaigned for years to get child marriage banned in Florida. According to the AP, lawmakers repeatedly cited her story as an example of why the state needed to take a more rigid stance on the issue. The activist was reportedly applauded by lawmakers after the bill’s passing.
The measure that passed was a weakened version of an earlier bill that sought to establish 18 as the minimum marriage age in Florida. Under the measure sent to Scott, 17-year-olds can get married so long as their partners are no more than two years older than they are and parental consent is obtained.
Florida’s current law allows 16- and 17-year-olds to marry with parental consent ― and in cases of pregnancy, a judge can approve the marriage of a younger child. Since 2012, at least one 13-year-old and several 14-year-olds have wed in Florida, reported the AP.
“I’m very happy, even though it’s not at the top line of 18,” Johnson said of the revised bill. “I can deal with the line of 17 with all of the requirements.”
Other activists were more muted in their celebration.
“It’s not what we wanted, but it’s much, much better,” Amanda Parker of the AHA Foundation, a women’s rights organization, told PBS Frontline. “We really wanted to see a bright line minimum marriage at 18. We know that 17-year-olds are the most likely to be married out of all minors, so we’re still leaving a big chunk of the population at risk of child marriage in Florida.”
More than 16,000 minors were married in Florida between 2000 and 2015, according to a Frontline analysis of child marriage in the U.S. Of those minors, more than 60 percent were 17 at the time of marriage.
Child marriage remains legal in the U.S., where “every state has legal loopholes or exceptions” permitting those under the age of 18 to marry, according to Reuters.
Several states, including Alaska and New Hampshire, are mulling bills to raise the minimum marriage age. In Tennessee, a bill that sought to ban child marriage was effectively killed by House Republicans last week.