Topper, allies pushing to end child marriages

Led in part by Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, a group of state lawmakers is set to push for a ban on underage marriages in Pennsylvania.

House Bill 2542 — introduced this summer by Topper and Rep. Perry S. Warren, D-Yardley — would strictly forbid those under 18 years old from being married, regardless of parental approval.

First proposed in July, the bill may not make it to the floor this year, Topper said. But its backers are set to host a press conference this month to drum up support for the issue — one Topper said is rarely talked about in the state.

Under Pennsylvania law, children of any age can be married with approval from a parent or legal guardian. The policy, common in many states, leaves an opening for sex traffickers and abusers to take advantage of children as young as 12, Topper said.

“We found a correlation with sex trafficking and foreign marriages where the children have very little say about it,” Topper said.

Since its introduction, the bill has drawn more than 40 cosponsors, including Rep. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg, and Rep. Tommy Sankey, R-Osceola Mills.

Child marriage “can be coercive or exploitative and is highly likely to result in short- and long-term harm to a child, undermining his or her education, health and economic opportunities and increasing the risk of experiencing violence,” the bill’s sponsors wrote in a memo seeking their colleagues’ support.

The Pennsylvania push is one of many across the country backed by Unchained at Last, an advocacy group that provides services to girls and women seeking to escape forced marriages. Its founder married an abusive husband at 19, under pressure from her family and their ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

The group estimates nearly 250,000 children, most of them girls, were married between 2000 and 2010 in the U.S.

While insular religious communities sometimes encourage marriage at a young age, Topper said the bill doesn’t target rural religious groups like the Amish and Old Order Mennonites who live in his district. Topper said the bill’s supporters consulted with representatives of the plain-living communities, who typically marry in their early 20s.

While the bill could ride out this year’s House session without a vote, Topper said its backers hope to gather support for a push after November elections reshape the Legislature.

“It’s just not an issue you hear a whole lot of,” he said. “But it’s getting more and more national attention.”

Casey calls

for Kavanaugh docs

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., praised colleagues Thursday for releasing hidden documents on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as Democrats fight to expose more of Kavanaugh’s record before a final vote.

Casey — fighting for his re-election against U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11th District — publicly backed Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who have released “committee confidential” documents from Kavanaugh’s past employment.

Kavan­augh’s nomination has become a major electoral issue, with Senate Republicans seeking to vote him onto the high court before the November election. Democrats, including Casey, have accused the GOP of hiding mountains of damaging information on Kavanaugh’s past.

“Instead of following the historical standard of allowing the nonpartisan National Archives to determine what documents are released, Republicans have outsourced this process to a Republican lawyer who represents officials in the Trump Administration,” Casey said on Twitter. “This is a lifetime appointment that will impact the lives of all Americans. We deserve to have Judge Kavanaugh’s full record available.”

A representative of Barletta, who is trailing Casey in polls, accused Casey of “dereliction of duty” for his refusal to consider Kavanaugh, the Patriot-News reported.

Gun bills move down twin tracks

While state lawmakers in both parties push to tighten certain gun restrictions, some are revisiting plans to nullify federal gun rules and allow the arrest of those who enforce them.

In the wake of several mass shootings across the country last year, state legislators moved to restrict gun ownership in limited cases. One such plan — giving accused domestic abusers a shorter period to turn in their guns, while barring them from merely handing their guns over to family members — has gained traction and could get a vote soon.

Advocates are pushing for a House vote on the plan, House Bill 2060, in the limited time remaining in this year’s session. A similar measure passed the Senate unanimously, and the powerful National Rifle Association has not openly opposed it.

While some move for tougher laws, however, many in the state House are revisiting anti-gun control bills popular during President Barack Obama’s administration.

Last week, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry — joined by colleagues including Ward, Sankey and Rep. Rich Irvin, R-Huntingdon — resubmitted a bill to nullify federal gun laws and bar federal officials from enforcing them.

Under Metcalfe’s proposal, which almost certainly would not pass Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk even if it reached it, federal officials and agents could face seven years in prison if they try to register or seize guns, ammunition or accessories here.

Several states have passed similar laws, which effectively nullify federal law. The Constitution dictates that federal laws typically trump those of states, making them difficult to enforce in practice.

But the ongoing popularity of such bills shows that an appetite remains for anti-gun-control politics in Harrisburg, even under a president who shares the sponsors’ views.

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