Bill would ban child marriage

CHEYENNE –- The Wyoming Legislature could act this year to make the state one of only three in the country that prevents any child under the age of 18 from getting married.

Currently, Wyoming law sets the legal age for marriage at 16, but allows for a child younger than that to get married, if given approval by a parent or guardian and approved by a judge.

A bill proposed by incoming House Minority Whip Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, would move the age limit to 18 and eliminate any exceptions.

Pelkey said House Bill 60 just makes sense, given other age restrictions in state law.

“Frankly, there are a lot of things people cannot do until they’re 18 or 21. And I think getting married is one of the most important and life-altering decisions you can make,” Pelkey said. “You ought to be an adult to make that decision.”

Only Delaware and New Jersey currently prevent anyone under 18 from getting married. Kentucky, New York, Texas and Virginia also have restrictions against someone under the age of 18 getting married, but those states do have loopholes. New York and Kentucky allow for someone who’s 17 and emancipated to enter into a marriage. And Virginia and Texas allow for an emancipated minor 16 or older to get married.

Wyoming’s laws aren’t an outlier in the country. In Utah, someone can get married at 16 with a parent’s permission, or at 15 with parental permission and a judge’s approval. In Colorado and Idaho, a child can get married at 16, or even younger if given consent by a parent and approved by a judge. Alaska allows someone as young as 14 to be married, if a judge approves of the decision.

Pelkey said often in cases when someone is getting married before they turn 18, that child doesn’t have any say in the matter.

“They’re not the ones making the decisions. It’s the parents, it’s other people,” he said. “Frankly, we have a cutoff for making major decisions on one’s own, and we define the age of majority at 18. We ought to at least respect that when it comes to entering into a marriage.

“We don’t think kids can buy dry ice at Walmart. I can’t believe we’re letting kids make a major decision like that without being an adult.”

Getting married while still a child has lasting ramifications, Pelkey said. A 2005 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found girls in the United States who marry before 19 are 50 percent more likely than their unmarried peers to drop out of school and four times less likely to graduate from college.

Pelkey said he was inspired to put the bill forward, in part, by the work of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that has been a major advocate for ending child marriage in the country.

In a Washington Post op-ed in 2017, the group’s founder, Fraidy Reiss, cited numerous stories of young women being forced into marriage by parents, only to be subjected to abuse and mistreatment. The group estimated that more than 248,000 children entered into marriages in the United States between 2000 and 2010, some as young as 12, and most to men 18 or older.

Pelkey filed his bill on Monday, so he wasn’t sure if his effort would garner resistance or if it would find enough support to become law.

“I want to put the issue out there for discussion. I’d be thrilled to death if it passed on the first try,” Pelkey said. “It’s worth the discussion, and certainly worth the effort on my part.”