Romero introduces bill to end underage marriages in Utah

Utah Capitol 03

Two Democratic-sponsored bills relating to Utah marriage provisions were introduced Friday, one outlawing any marriages for minors under 18 years old.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake, has HB234, which would ban all marriages now allowed under exceptions for minors.

Only adults, age 18 and older, could marry in Utah after March of this year.

Two other states currently have such marriage restrictions, Romero, the House minority assistant whip, told

Utah has certain situations that call for such a move, she said:

Among the state’s polygamist societies many minor girls agree to a teenage marriage under threat of having to marry an older man if they don’t marry a 19- or 20-year old fellow polygamous.

“I’ve had a personal conversation with some of these young women,” she said.

Girls may feel pressured by family members to marry, should they find themselves pregnant by their boyfriend.

“And it may not be the best action by that young woman, but she wants to do what others tell her to.”

And even if there are not those kinds of circumstances, teenage marriages often end in divorce, and it is usually the woman who suffers the most.

A number of young married women end up have children, may not finish high school, and if divorced find it much harder to cope with child rearing and low-paying jobs.

In short, young marriages can harm a girl for life.

Still, only letting adults marry would be a big change, as currently any number of minors above the age of 15 are allowed to marry with the consent of their parents or guardians.

And even younger minors – at 15 — can marry with the approval of a court judge.

“I imagine some real pushback,” from some legislators and others, Romero said. “We are considering some changes” to the introduced bill, which may make it more palatable.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said last year one 15-year-old girl was allowed to marry by a judge, and more than 20 youngsters under age 18 were married with parental consent in the county.

Utah has historically been a place where older teenagers could marry, in part because of the Mormon societal acceptance of early marriages.

Years ago, Swensen – whose office issues many of the state’s marriage licenses – got the Legislature to tighten up early marriage laws because she saw girls 14 and 15 being brought to Utah from other states, many in the South, to be married to older men.

“I had to marry a 14-year-old to a 56-year-old man from Texas,” Swensen recalls, and it made her sick.

While less of a stigma today, it used to be that high school girls who got pregnant by their boyfriend would get a “shotgun” marriage – with parents on both sides demanding, and approving, the union.

“I approach this from a gender equality, female perspective,” said Romero – trying to solve a problem – teenage marriage/divorce/domestic violence, to help young women make good choices.

Some studies suggest that humans are not fully emotionally mature until their early 20s, said Romero and the state should consider helping young adults, especially teenagers, with life-changing decisions like marriage.

Meanwhile, Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Salt Lake, has HB238, which would raise the basic marriage license fee from $10 to $35, the extra money going to domestic violence protection housing/homes – thus providing more state assistance to those who are victims of beatings or threats by their spouse or live-in partners.