Bid to ban marriages for 15-year-olds in Utah clears hurdle

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Associated Press
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks with Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan,on the House floor Tuesday, Feb. 26, in Salt Lake City. A proposal to ban most underage marriage in Utah has cleared its first hurdle with support from women who have left polygamous groups. (Associated Press)

A bid to ban marriage for 15-year-olds in Utah has cleared its first hurdle with support from women who have left polygamous groups.

Democratic Rep. Angela Romero had originally proposed a ban on all marriages under 18, but agreed to an amendment for older teenagers if a judge is involved and gives permission. Current law allows 16 and 17-year-olds to wed with only a parent’s consent.

“A child should be a child,” she said, arguing that unions involving people younger than 18 are associated with higher rates of divorce and lower levels of education.

Romero said she’s planning to add a provision to her bill that outlaws marriages with age gaps larger than 7 years, and she’d eventually like to see exceptions for 16 and 17-year-olds removed.

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

The bill was approved unanimously by a panel of lawmakers on Monday and now advances to the full House.

Supporters included LuAnn Cooper, who said she was born into the polygamous Kingston group and got married at 15, which current law allows with permission from a parent and a judge.

“It was the culture I was raised in. I believed God wanted me to do,” she said. She left the group years ago, and contended that teenagers are too young to be married.

“Kids under 18 can’t buy a car, they can’t sign any other contract because they’re not old enough … so why are they getting married under 18?” she said.

Heidi Clark said Monday that she got pregnant and wed at age 17 under pressure from her boyfriend’s religious community of Seventh-Day Adventists in Pennsylvania. The marriage eventually became abusive, but Clark said she felt a unique pressure to stay because she had wed so young.

“If we had been forced to wait maybe I would have seen the truth,” said Clark, who now lives in Utah. “Our children are vulnerable.”

Others, though, said younger unions can work.

Nicholeen Peck with the group Worldwide Organization for Women spoke against the bill, saying she’s been happily married since age 18. “People grow at different rates,” she said.

The measure comes amid a push to raise the marriage age to 18 across the country.

Until recently, more than half of states didn’t set any limit on how young someone could be to get married if they met criteria like parental approval, according to the Virginia-based Tahirih Justice Center, which is leading the effort.

Fourteen states have now changed their laws to end or limit underage marriage. Two, Delaware and New Jersey, have raised the marriage age to 18 with no exceptions. Several more are considering similar plans this year.

More than 200,000 Americans younger than 18 got married between 2000 and 2015, according to marriage data. Most of them were girls, and most were married to adult men, the group found.

In Utah, 253 people younger than 18, the majority of them female, got married in 2010, the most recent year Utah Health Department figures are available.

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