Steamed crabs and a sail on the Chesapeake Bay have long been part of Maryland’s tourism campaigns.
They came from across the nation to wed in the Free State:
Ohio (16 and 36 years old)
West Virginia (16 and 30)
Arkansas (17 and 21)
Virginia (17 and 29)
South Carolina (both 16)
Delaware (15 and 22)
Texas (17 and 22)
Within the past five years, some even came from Alaska (17 and 19) to wed under Maryland’s archaic laws. The marriage tourists came as the rest of the nation began tightening laws and raising the legal age when someone can say “I do.”
Poyer imagines his own kids when they were this young and is frustrated that in most underage marriages, court clerks across the state like him rarely get to see both people getting married.
“We don’t even have to check IDs,” Poyer said. The law says only one person has to appear before the clerk to get the marriage license. Once the wedding happens — that can be at the courthouse, on the beach, in church, a zoo, anywhere — the marriage certificate is issued and it’s good in all 50 states.
Marriage tourism isn’t new here. The state’s freewheeling, no-wait requirements made it the elopement capital a century ago — especially in Elkton, the small border town closest to Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. The Vegas of the East. Elkton was to marriage what Reno was to divorce.
Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant went there in “The Philadelphia Story,” a chess champion and a princess did it in 1938 and Willie Mays and Margherite Wendell Chapman had their quickie Elkton marriage in 1956. They were all smiles in their photos.
“Cheer up, this will be the happiest day of your life,” one of the clerks in the Elkton courthouse basement told a 16-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed girl from Delaware named Skyler, when she began to cry at her February wedding to a man twice her age in 2009.
"Wipe them tears,” Skyler remembers the clerk telling her. Still in her 20s and trying to live a new life, she testified before lawmakers in 2016 to keep others from experiencing what she endured.
In his frequent testimony to state legislators — this is the seventh year they’ve been at this — Poyer makes the point that there are virtually no safeguards in Maryland law to protect children who don’t want to marry. “The marriage ceremony itself can be performed by virtually anyone. Anyone can be ordained to perform a wedding in Maryland, it takes about five minutes and costs $29.99.”
In the past decade, the nation woke up to the fact that it’s been perfectly legal for a 15-year-old to marry a 40-year-old in most of our states.
State records show that at least 300,000 minors were married in the United States between 2000 and 2018, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, an advocacy group that was formed to help immigrants who fled to the U.S. to escape a forced marriage in their native countries.
Since 2018, six states have raised the minimum marriage age to 18, no exceptions.
Rightly they should. You’ve got to be 18 to vote, to join the military, to buy spray paint, porn and cigarettes (in some states), to open a credit card or work full time. You also have to be 18 to file for divorce and to check yourself into a domestic violence shelter.
I have a 15-year-old, he’s still working on putting dirty clothes in the hamper. But in Maryland, he could be a husband.
A 16- or 17-year-old can get married under one of two conditions: parental consent or pregnancy. 15-year-olds who are both pregnant and have a parents’ blessing (it only requires one parent) may be wed.
“Only four states — four states — have [the pregnancy exception]," said Casey Carter Swegman, director of public policy at the Tahirih Justice Center and a Maryland native who is appalled by the position her home state has taken on this. “And Maryland is one of them.”
The blue crab state that has voted blue in every presidential election since 1988 is keeping company with Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico on this.
But why is this so bad? Hasn’t our nation’s lore been filled with high school sweethearts who get pregnant and do the honorable thing by going to the altar? Isn’t a “shotgun wedding” part of our cultural lexicon? We devoured television shows about pregnant teens.
Married teen moms are twice as likely to live in poverty, 50 percent more likely to drop out of school, three times as likely to experience domestic violence. Nearly 80 percent of them get divorced, said Maryland Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D), chief sponsor of Senate Bill 29.
More dangerously, Swegman said, Maryland’s law can give pedophiles unfettered access to their victims. And these children are limited in their ability to get help because they don’t have the same legal rights as an adult. If the victim comes from a vulnerable family, the promise of a better life from a predatory adult can win them over.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has been quiet on the issue. He’s the guy who extended school summer vacation past Labor Day to help the tourism industry. So I asked his office if he’s worried about the state becoming a destination for child weddings.
“Should lawmakers be able to resolve their differences and get something to his desk, the governor will give the measure thoughtful consideration,” said a spokesperson for Hogan, Michael Ricci.
Bills to change this have been banging around Annapolis for seven years, kicked around by both sides of the aisle.
On one side there are traditionalists like state Sen. Chris West (R) who said in a hearing last month that the “sticky wicket” on stopping child marriage for him is a hypothetical couple, “a 17-year-old junior in high school and her 18-year-old boyfriend get involved sexually and she gets pregnant, according to this bill, there could not be a wedding.” You could almost hear the sounds of a ’50s ballad and see West clutch his pearls when he said the child would be delivered out of wedlock.
On the other side are legislators holding firm for a bright line at 18, no exceptions, rejecting amendments that allow emancipated minors who are 16 or 17 to marry. Or Sen. Jill Carter (D), who said this month that she is “plagued by the hypocrisy” of a bill that won’t let 17-year-olds marry while the criminal justice system can try a 17-year-old as an adult for certain crimes.
When it was first introduced, Maryland was at the forefront of the revolution. It’s since been left in the dust by Georgia, Utah, Florida and more than two dozen other states that have enacted reform.
But on Valentine’s Day this week, the state senate reached a compromise and passed SR29, raising the age to 17 as long as the minor has parental approval or is pregnant. The compromise “represents the best balance that we can find,” Elfreth said.
Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D) has introduced the bill year after year because, among other reasons, she’s tired of hearing the stories of "girls marrying men that are 10, 15, 20 years their senior.”
The House is expected to vote on the bill this week. And Poyer is holding out hope. Age 18 would be better, he said, but he’ll be relieved that he won’t have to worry about marrying 15- and 16-year-olds.
These aren’t love stories. And it’s time for Maryland to grow up.