15-year-olds can legally get married in Utah. Is it time that changed?

Feb 26, 2019, 5:37 PM
Warren Jeffs with Child Bride...
Warren Jeffs with one of his child brides, who police say was 12-year-old when they were married. While a marriage like this is not legal in Utah, our law does allow children to marry at the age of 15. (Photo: Texas Court Evidence / Deseret News)
(Photo: Texas Court Evidence / Deseret News)

Heidi Clark was only 16-years-old when she got married. She was pregnant and afraid to raise a child without a husband at her side, and so she and her baby’s father got married young. It was a mistake, Clark says; she ended her marriage after six years, alleging her husband had subjected her to physical and sexual abuse.

The marriage was legal. Under Utah law, 16- and 17-year-olds can legally get married as long as they have consent from one of their parents. Children as young as 15 can get married, as well, as long as they get approval from a juvenile judge.

Clark and House Representative Angela Romero want that to change. Romero has put forward a bill that would ban marriages for 15-year-olds and require judicial consent for 16 and 17-year olds.

The bill made its first major step forward Monday, when it received its first hearing before the House of Representatives on Monday. There, Clark told her story before Utah’s legislators, who voted to push the bill forward with unanimous support.

Utah’s child marriage laws

Heidi Clark

Heidi Clark holds a photograph from her 1995 wedding at her home in Orem, Utah, on Friday, May 18, 2018 (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Between 2000 and 2010, according to a PBS report, 4,386 children were married in Utah.

Compared to the rest of the nation, that figure is staggering. Child marriages are more common in the Beehive state than all but five other U.S. states.

Romero is hoping that she cab put an end to it. Originally, her bill called for the end of all marriages between anyone under the age of 18. As a compromise, however, she’s agreed to adapt her bill to only ban marriage for Utah’s youngest legal couples: 15-year-olds.

That toned-down version of Romero’s original bill will only put an end to a handful of child marriages; according to KUTV, Salt Lake County saw only one marriage involved a 15-year-old in 2018. Still, Romero has accepted the compromise as a move in the right direction.

“I’m not giving up on raising the minimum age to 18,” Romero told KSL, “but this is a first step.”

Her bill would also forbid child brides from getting married to anyone more than seven years old than they are, a stipulation that currently doesn’t exist in Utah’s legal code.

She has Heidi Clark’s support. Clark, after telling the House Judiciary Committee the story of how her marriage at a young age devolved into abuse, told the committee:

“There can be no good reason for a child to marry. None at all. It traps our daughters and sons in an unhappy and unsafe environment.”

The other side of the argument

Angela Romero and Nicholeen Peck

Rep. Angela Romero (left), the sponsor of the bill. and Nicholeen Peck (right), who spoke out against the bill. (Photos: KSL.com / Amazon)

Utah’s marriage laws, however, are not entirely unique within the United States. Currently, only three states – Kentucky, Louisiana, and West Virginia – completely ban all marriage under the age of 18.

Several states actually set the minimum age even lower than Utah. In Massachusetts, girls with parental consent can get married at ages as young as 12-years-old, while California and Mississippi have no minimum marriageable age laws at all.

Romero would like Utah to lead the way in making that change. She views the child marriage laws in the United States as part of an older era that no longer has a role in our society.

However, Nicholeen Peck of the Worldwide Organization of Women disagrees with the idea that that older era needs to be washed away. She spoke against the bill at the House, contradicting Clark’s statement that there is “no good reason” for child marriage by telling them:

“Each person’s situation could be very uniquely different. Some people could feel like getting married when they have a pregnancy that maybe they didn’t plan on ahead of time is the morally right thing to do for them. I think we need to open the door for that.”

Peck is a lifelong advocate for traditional gender roles and marriages. She is the author of “Roles”, a book that argues that following gender roles are the key to keeping a family successful, as well as the President of the Worldwide Organization of Women, a non-profit group espousing faith and traditional families.

The group believes strongly in what could be called an old-world view of what a family should be. In one blog post, entitled “Freeing fathers from false identities”, they wrote: “Daddies don’t have to change diapers.”

In a sense, the debate between her and Romero could be seen as one between old ideals and new ones. While Peck cites underaged, premarital pregnancies as a “morally right” reason to get married, Romero described the exact same scenario as a “horror story”, saying:

“My concern is there are a lot of situations where a child — we’re talking about children here — might be forced into a situation due to pregnancy or some other issue that a parent might have. I’ve heard horror stories about when a child has sex with someone that a parent has made them get married.”

The House, it seems, put more stock into Romero’s point-of-view. Every Representative present voted in favor of the bill.

As the bill moves into the next step of the legislative process, however, it will have to overcome the question of whether views like Peck’s still have a role in modern society.

For her part, Romero believes that her bill won’t stop young lovers from getting married altogether; it will just force them to really think about it. She told KSL: “If a relationship is strong enough to form a healthy marriage, it’s strong enough to wait until both parties are adults.”

Romero’s bill will next have to pass through a formal hearing on the House floor. Stayed tuned to KSL Newsradio for every update on the bill as it progresses.

More to the story

Utah weighed in on this story during KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic. Our listeners called in to share their stories, including one texter who says that her marriage, that started when was 16-years-old, has been a total success.

If you missed their stories live on the air, you can still catch everything they shared on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast.

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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15-year-olds can legally get married in Utah. Is it time that changed?