Metro

Teen leads charge to raise marriage age in N.H.

Cassandra Levesque posed for a portrait on the campus of Southern New Hampshire University.
Erin Clark for The Boston Globe
Cassandra Levesque posed for a portrait on the campus of Southern New Hampshire University.

When Cassandra Levesque, 19, attended a Girl Scouts’ conference in 2015, she never imagined that what she learned there about the prevalence and consequences of child marriages around the world would lead to her playing a role in a groundbreaking legal change in her own state.

But three years and three laws later, Levesque has successfully lobbied to raise New Hampshire’s minimum age for marriage from 13 for girls and 14 for boys, to 16 for everyone. And now the once-reticent Barrington resident says she wants a seat in the state’s House of Representatives.

“I realized that I should run and that it would be a very interesting and new thing that I could learn from,” she said. “And even if I do or don’t win, it’s still a great learning opportunity.”

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As a little girl, “Cassie” Levesque was so shy that she used to hide behind her mother’s legs during meetings, said Patricia Mellor, chief executive of the Girls Scouts of the Green and White Mountains. She is no longer that, and today stands as a prominent New Hampshire advocate for laws restricting child marriages, Mellor said.

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“I’ve seen a huge increase in her ability to be confident in herself and to take the lead and actually be the spokesperson through the years,” she said.

In March 2016, Levesque presented a binder full of her own research on the state’s marriage-age law to Representative Jacalyn Cilley, asking whether she would sponsor a bill to change it. Cilley, a Democrat who is not running for reelection and has known Levesque since she was 8 and her family won a private tour of the State House with Cilley in a raffle, was happy to take it on.

Their first attempt, a bill that called for the minimum age to be 18, failed last year, and was barred from being proposed in the following session.

“They didn’t just kill it; they drove a stake through its heart,” Cilley said.

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The main criticism, Cilley said, was concern over young men who wish to join the military and marry their young girlfriends so they could receive spousal military benefits.

Though Levesque faced many attacks on the bill in the State House, she persisted.

“We were given all different types of reasons, and we came back and told them with my research and [Cilley’s] research why we should be fighting this,” Levesque said, adding that children who enter into marriages are too young to make that kind of decision and often face limited education opportunities and personal freedom once they’re married.

She said that finally seeing the latest version passed — a trio of laws addressing minimum age and the standards that judges must use to grant exceptions to it — was an exciting moment for her and her team.

One law provides that individuals must be 16 to marry under any circumstances, and another says those wishing to marry under the age of 18 must get permission from a judge, who can only allow the union if it is in the best interest of the minor.

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The third law prohibits a judge from permitting any marriage involving a minor where sexual relations between the individuals being married would be considered sexual assault.

‘I realized that I should run and that it would be a very interesting and new thing that I could learn from. And even if I do or don’t win, it’s still a great learning opportunity.’

“I was proud that people finally realized that this is wrong and we should be solving this,” Levesque said.

New Hampshire’s marriage-age law is now more akin to that in Vermont, where the minimum age is 16, and anyone under 18 who wishes to marry must get parental consent. In Massachusetts, there is no minimum age to marry, though there are some judicial and parental restrictions.

With the legislative initiative signed into law by Governor Christopher T. Sununu in June, Levesque recently announced she is running as a Democrat for Cilley’s seat in Strafford’s Fourth District. She filed her candidacy June 15 and is in the beginning stages of planning her campaign.

If she prevails, Levesque says she believes she would be the youngest woman elected to the House, which has 400 members. She is up against four other candidates for two seats representing the district, according to the state’s filing records: Republicans Robert J. Drew and Jenny Wilson, Libertarian Frank Bertone, and Democrat Matthew D. Towne. (Republican Len Turcotte, who holds the other seat, is also not running for reelection, according to his website.)

Meanwhile, Levesque intends to begin taking online classes in July at Southern New Hampshire University toward a political science degree, which she says works well with her plans for campaigning. The university is giving her a scholarship in recognition of her achievements.

Mellor said the marriage-age bills were only one part of Levesque’s work that earned her a Girl Scout Gold Award in 2017. Levesque has also supported others in advocacy efforts, creating a Girl Scouts patch program to help other girls follow in her footsteps with their own causes, Mellor said.

“Girls and parents are hearing about what she did, and it’s really inspiring girls across the country,” Mellor said. “We’re very proud and have definitely seen girls looking up to her, and they want to work on her advocacy patch as a result.”

Jamie Halper can be reached at jamie.halper@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jamiedhalper.