Florida is poised to put the country's strictest ban on child marriage into law after a bill— with some narrow exceptions for 17-year-olds — was passed by state legislators Friday.
The marriage of minors is technically legal in Florida: 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with their parents' consent, and county judges can approve marriages with even younger minors if there is a pregnancy involved.
But the bill, SB 140, which was passed by the House nearly unanimously, eliminates the pregnancy requirement and limits any marriage of minors to 17 years of age and only if they satisfy a series of requirements added by the Senate earlier in the week.
The vote was 109-1, with only Rep. George Moraitis Jr., R-Fort Lauderdale, voting no.
A bill had been proposed for multiple years in the Legislature to close the loophole allowing minors to marry, but lawmakers credited this year's passage to six years of advocacy from Sherry Johnson, a child marriage victim who was raped, became pregnant and was married to one of the men who assaulted her by age 11.
Johnson, who went on to have five more children in that marriage, said a ban on child marriage would have altered her future, even if it would not have prevented her abuse.
"It would have changed my life by not allowing me to get married, to continue to have children, to continue to have my downfall," she said. "I would have been a single mother, possibly, and I think I would have done well."
After she watched the House vote to send the legislation to the governor, Johnson fiercely hugged bill sponsors Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, and Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, outside the chamber doors.
Though the Senate initially passed a bill this session that banned marriage under the age of 18 without exception, lawmakers in the House raised several concerns about 16- and 17-year-olds and possible legal and medical benefits that might be extended to young couples.
Both chambers eventually agreed to a compromise that would allow 17-year-olds to marry without a pregnancy requirement, provided that their partner is also within two years of age. Those couples would also have to take a premarital preparation course, sign a sworn affidavit confirming the union is not coerced and receive counseling if there is a pregnancy involved.
"We don't want someone to have to be pregnant to get married," said Benacquisto on Monday. "If they are in love and they want to find that life partner, it shouldn't be the result of only a pregnancy. … We should not allow people to continue to assault children and then use marriage as a shield for their behavior."
Before the bill passed in the Senate, Benacquisto alluded to the Parkland legislation that has consumed both chambers in the final weeks of the session, after 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month.
"We also had another call… to protect children from forced marriages," she said. "We acted swiftly, we acted decisively."
Johnson said she was satisfied with the compromise, though she plans to advocate for similar legislation across the country — and possibly abroad.
"My mission is for the world, for the children all over the world," she said. "It's not just Florida… It's for the children everywhere."