In New Jersey, you have to be 18 to vote, 19 to smoke, and 21 to drink. But there isn't a minimum age to get married.
From 1995 to 2015, more than 3,600 children in the state married – the youngest at 13, according to state health records. A judge has to approve marriages of children 15 and younger, while 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with parental approval.
Lawmakers are considering making New Jersey the first state to bar child marriage, a practice that – while not common – poses serious dangers, particularly to girls, advocates say.
"I was surprised that there was an issue, that we even allowed 14-year-olds to get married," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), one of the bill's sponsors.
"A lot of it may be cultural," he said. "Nonetheless, as a public policy, New Jersey should not be encouraging" child marriage.
Nearly three-quarters of children nationally who married between 2000 and 2010 were girls married to adults, "sometimes with an age difference that constitutes statutory rape," said Fraidy Reiss, the founder of Unchained at Last, a nonprofit based in Westfield, N.J., that helps women and girls escape forced marriages.
Data provided by 38 states to Unchained showed that more than 167,000 children married during that decade, with 31 percent of children marrying someone 21 or older, according to Reiss.
Pennsylvania was among the states that did not provide marriage data.
The marriages tend to be pushed by parents, including for cultural or religious reasons — but not limited to a specific community. Unchained has heard from girls who are Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, Reiss said.
Some parents want to control a child's behavior or sexuality, she said. In other cases, money comes into play, with a bride price or dowry.
"We're not helping children by allowing them to so-called marry," Reiss said. "It's not a right; it's a human-rights abuse."
All states have exceptions that enable children to marry, Reiss said. Her organization is pushing to change those laws, including in New Jersey, where she helped write the bill moving through the Legislature.
The bill, which would eliminate the authority of parents and judges to approve marriages of children, passed the Assembly 64-0 in November, with seven lawmakers abstaining.
It recently cleared a Senate committee, although one senator voted against it.
"There's a huge percentage of people that actually do stay together" after getting married "very young," Sen. Mike Doherty (R., Warren) said during a hearing on the bill this month. "That's got to be hundreds of thousands of people in the United States, every year, that have successful marriages."
A member of the military, Doherty said that while he was stationed in Germany, "a lot of our troops, they would get married pretty young. … I could see one of the benefits of getting married, they love each other, and one's in Germany and one's back in the United States." He also raised the issue of whether marriage was warranted in cases of pregnancy, which Reiss called "exceptionally bad public policy."
Pregnancy exceptions can be used to cover up rape, while "pregnant girls who stay single have better long-term outcomes," Reiss told Doherty. Fathers can establish paternity without getting married, allowing benefits to transfer to the baby, she said.
Reiss argues banning marriage under 18 wouldn't take away anyone's right to marry. "We're delaying it," she said.
Reiss, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was forced by her family into a marriage when she was 19, started Unchained to help women leave forced marriages. As the nonprofit became successful — it has helped 300 clients, according to Reiss — it began getting "more and more calls" from girls under 18.
"We discovered there was no way we could help them," Reiss said. Children who leave home can be considered runaways. They can't easily retain attorneys, because contracts with children can be deemed voidable, Reiss said.
While it's difficult for a woman to leave a forced marriage, "for a child, even if they reach out for help, there's no escape," Reiss said.
New Jersey doesn't provide identifying information about children who are married. Of the 3,600 who married between 1995 and 2015, 166 were 15 or younger, according to state data.
For those children, the state also doesn't provide information about the judges who married them — or confirm the marriages had judicial approval, Reiss said.
New Jersey would be the first state to ban marriage under 18 completely, according to Reiss. While Virginia passed a law last year, it still allows 16- and 17-year-olds who are emancipated minors to marry.