Utah lawmaker revises bill to raise marriage age

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A Utah lawmaker is currently revising his bill that proposed raising the state’s minimum marriage age to 16, and is now proposing to raise the age from 15 to 18.

Rep. Adam Gardiner, R-West Jordan, decided to modify the bill he filed in May 2017 after conducting additional research on the topic of child marriage. Gardiner plans to make the bill public later this year.

From left: Rep. Adam Gardiner, R-West Jordan, and Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, research a bill for an upcoming debate in the House chamber. (Richard Jaussi)

Gardiner anticipates his bill will be considered early in the next legislative session. In the interim, he is working with the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel to revise the code.

“This is the way society is moving,” Gardiner said. “There’s really not an excuse for child brides in the state of Utah.”

Gardiner worked with the national nonprofit Tahirih Justice Center to learn more about child marriage in Utah and the United States. He discovered only a small group of 15-year-olds are getting married in Utah, and the real concern with child marriages lies with 16- and 17-year-olds. 

Utah’s current marriage law permits 15-year-olds to marry with the consent of a parent or guardian and the approval of a juvenile court. The juvenile court may require premarital counseling and can impose additional conditions, like requiring the minor to complete high school.

Only the consent of a parent or guardian is required for 16- and 17-year-olds to marry. 

Gardiner plans to add the exception of emancipation to his bill. If a child believes they are mature enough to be married, seeking emancipation should not be a problem, Gardiner said.

The state of Utah encourages people who want to marry under the age of 19 to participate in premarital counseling to “achieve more stable, satisfying and enduring marital and family relationships.”

Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for policy and strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, said while child marriages are referenced in the current code as a risk to good marriages and families, Utah has yet to pass a law that specifically addresses the risk of child marriage.

Smoot said there are two reasons for child marriage. On one end of the spectrum, the child marriage resembles human trafficking: older men target young girls or parents “want to offload responsibilities.” The other reasons include a family tradition to marry young or a way to prevent sex or pregnancy outside of marriage.

Teen mothers who marry are twice as likely to live in poverty if they get divorced, and poverty is a likely prospect considering child marriage divorce rates near 80 percent, according to a paper by College of William and Mary Law School professor Vivian E. Hamilton. Many parents believe the marriage will provide stability and security for their child, but underage marriage does the opposite, Smoot said.

Whatever the reason for a child marriage — be it forced or voluntary — the affect on the child is the same, Smoot said. Child marriages significantly increase the likelihood of school dropouts, divorce, poverty, medical and mental health problems, and domestic violence.

The gaps in Utah’s current marriage and emancipation laws leave open a possibility for children to be forced or coerced into marriage, Smoot said.

Smoot said she is also concerned Utah’s emancipation laws permit but do not require the court to appoint an attorney to the minor. An attorney is able to provide a minor with their rights and options and ensure they are not being coerced or forced to proceed with an emancipation in order to marry, Smoot said.

The requirement for 16- and 17-year-olds to receive parental consent is troubling as parental coercion or force can be disguised as parental consent, Smoot said.

“Unless (Utah) enacts legislation to address the vulnerabilities of all minors in forced or coerced marriages … then the state will not have tackled its child marriage problem,” Smoot said.

Gardiner’s bill does not propose any changes to Utah’s emancipation statute. Currently, the state requires a minor to be 16 to be emancipated.