TRENTON — Gov. Christie on Thursday vetoed a bill that would have prohibited children under 18 from marrying, calling the proposed ban a "severe bar" that would interfere with religious customs.
But the Republican governor recommended that lawmakers make changes that would place more restrictions on the practice, including barring children under 16 from marrying and requiring that judges approve marriages of 16- and 17-year-olds.
Currently, a judge has to approve marriages of children 15 and younger, while 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with parental approval.
"An exclusion without exceptions would violate the cultures and traditions of some communities in New Jersey based on religious traditions," Christie said in his veto message. "Judicial oversight would permit consideration of these factors in the 16- and 17-year-old timeframe."
The bill was backed by advocates for ending child marriage, who have termed the practice a human-rights abuse.
Requiring judicial approval of marriages of 16- and 17-year-olds won't prevent girls from being forced into marriages, said Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last, a nonprofit based in Westfield.
If a girl being forced to marry is honest with a judge, "she's going to face really serious repercussions" from her parents, said Reiss, whose group helps women and girls escape forced marriages. The other option is to lie, Reiss said.
From 1995 to 2015, more than 3,600 children New Jersey married, including 166 who were 15 or younger. The youngest was 13, according to state health records.
Of Christie's proposal to ban marriage for children 15 and younger but not 16- and 17-year-olds, Reiss objected to the "notion of separating the two groups as though somehow it's less terrible" for the older teenagers. Both ages, if forced into marriage, would face the same challenges if they sought to leave home or retain an attorney, Reiss said.
She called Christie's veto a "shameful act."
In his veto message, Christie said that a ban on marriage under 18 would be inconsistent with New Jersey law allowing 16-year-olds to consent to sex or receive an abortion without parental permission.
Given that law, "it is disingenuous to hold that a 16-year-old may never consent to marriage," he said.