BOISE — The Idaho House has rejected a bill that would have set a minimum marriage age of 16.
Under current law, which will remain unchanged due to Thursday’s 28-39 vote, 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with parental permission and children under 16 can marry if a judge also signs off. The bill proposed by Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, would have banned marriage of children under 16 entirely, required a judge to sign off for 16- and 17-year-olds and also limited marriage of older teens to people within three years of them in age, aligning it with Idaho’s statutory rape laws.
While the number of child marriage has been declining over the past 20 years, from 2000 to 2010 Idaho had the highest per-capita rate of underage marriage out of the 38 states that track the data. That’s according to data from the national group Unchained at Last, which advocates against child marriage. The vast majority involve younger girls and older men.
In eastern Idaho’s public health districts 6 and 7 from 2012 to 2016, there were 159 marriages, or a little over 1 percent of the almost 14,000 total marriages, where one of the parties involved was under 18, according to data from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Of these 159 marriages, 130 involved a bride under 18 and a groom older than 18.
“When it’s legal for a 30-year-old to marry a 15-year-old, that is not marriage because they are not equal partners,” said Colin Nash, who is filling in temporarily for Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City. “That is institutionalized child abuse. That is legitimized statutory rape.”
Nash pointed to statistics showing girls who marry young are more likely to drop out of high school and college or be abused by their spouses.
Wintrow said she wanted the bill to be a compromise — she said she had been criticized online from the left for not trying to set the age at 18. She said it would protect children from being exploited and make sure the child’s wishes and well-being are taken into account.
“I think this is the right thing to do,” Wintrow said. “It’s a good compromise, and it’s an effort to protect children from being coerced, abused or married off.”
Several Republicans spoke against the bill.
“I appreciate the goal the bill is trying to accomplish here, but I think this bill goes too far,” said Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls.
Zollinger said he agreed very young teenagers probably shouldn’t be allowed to marry, but that he knew people who got married in high school when they were 16 or 17 and he didn’t think a court order should have been required. He also said he doesn’t think courts should be involved in marriage at all.
“I have a further problem with involving the government more in the regulation of marriage,” he said.
Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, pointed to statistics showing that people who marry at 15 and at 23 are about equally likely to still be married at age 46.
“If we pass this law, it will then become easier in the state of Idaho to obtain an abortion at 15-and-a-half years old than it will be to decide to form a family and create a family for a child that’s been conceived,” she said.
Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, said statistics showing a correlation between early marriage and poor outcomes later aren’t clear as to whether marriage is the cause of these problems.
“This is a decision that I believe should belong with families, and I believe parental consent, which is required in the law right now, should be sufficient,” she said.