Wyoming Republicans Fight For Their 'Constitutional Right' To Marry Children
The year 2015 was when the United States realized it had a child marriage problem and started talking about it.
Between 2000 and 2018, almost 300,000 children under the age of 18 were legally married in the United States — 78 percent of them minor girls wedded to adult men. While the vast majority were 16 and 17 year olds married to men an average of four years older than they were, there were some pretty jarring exceptions. In 2001 in Tennessee, three 10-year-old girls were married to men 24, 25 and 31. In Alabama, a 14-year-old girl was married to a 74-year-old man.
Since 2018, thanks to the work of anti-child marriage advocacy organization Unchained at Last, seven states have outlawed all marriage before the age of 18 — New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts, along with the territories of American Samoa and the US Virgin Islands. In most other states, the minimum age for marriage is 16, though there is proposed legislation to raise the age to 18. Eight states, however, have no minimum at all. Those states are California, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming. An actual toddler could get married in those states and it would be legal.
Recently, however, Wyoming Republican state Rep. Dan Zwonitzer introduced a bill that would raise the age of marriage to 18, with exceptions for 16 and 17 with parental consent. This is not a strong bill, unlike the one he co-sponsored in 2018 that would have raised the age to 18 with no exceptions. It's still very bad, because children under the age of 18 (with exceptions in some states for emancipated minors over 16) cannot be admitted to domestic violence shelters and they cannot file for divorce. Yes, that is correct. They can get married, but they can't get divorced. Because marriage is a contract and minors under the age of 18 are not allowed to enter into contracts.
Alas, even that weak-ass bill is a bridge too far for his Republican colleagues, who got together to put out a mass email detailing why they wish for the state to remain a safe haven for children of literally any age to get married.
Is it as bad as you think it is? Oh no, it's much worse — so, so much worse.
HB7 denies the fundamental purpose of marriage:
Marriage is the only institution in Wyoming Statute designed to keep a child's father and mother living under the same roof and cooperating in the raising of any children that they, together, conceive. This is the NATURAL RIGHT of every child. As such, it is protected in the Wyoming Constitution (see. Art.1, Sec. 3 and 23). Since young men and women may be physically capable of begetting and bearing children prior to the age of 16, marriage MUST remain open to them for the sake of those children.
The sad fact that physical maturity may not be matched by emotional and intellectual maturity is an indictment of our modern educational system. That is a problem that should be addressed. But we should not use it as an excuse to instantiate bad law.
The "if kids can have kids they should be able to get married" thing was to be expected. We've seen enough right-wing culture warriors go viral with nonsense about how it would be better for people to get married as teenagers or how they'd like to bring arranged marriage back by now that this is barely even shocking anymore.
However, I don't know that any of us had "the real problem is that schools don't prepare children to be married as soon as they hit puberty" on our bingo cards. Maybe this is the root of right-wing rage against public schools. Maybe they think if schools were doing their jobs correctly they could cruise middle school dances in search of suitable wives.
This was not the only defense, of course.
Denial of parent rights
Parents, by virtue of their right to conceive children, have the pre-political (i.e. God-given) responsibility to raise their own children. This right and responsibility includes guiding their own maturing children into the estate of Holy Matrimony. HB7 strips parents of their right to consent to properly desired and well-ordered marriages when they are below an arbitrary age. Moreover, this arbitrary age limit is demonstrably lower than the historical norm of millennia of human existence.
It is true that some perverse religions and cultures COERCE children to marry young, against their wishes. Sometimes, as in the case of human trafficking, this coercion comes from outside the family. Sometimes, it comes from the parents themselves. The Constitutional rights of children require that side-boards be in place to prevent such perversions. But those side-boards already exist in the form of written parental consent and judicial review of that consent. HB 7 removes those side-boards and replaces them with an arbitrary number that has no organic or essential impetus behind it.
Well, for one, while Wyoming does not have great child labor laws, children under the age of 16 are not allowed to have full-time jobs. They are not allowed to be emancipated from their parents until the age of 16. Prior to that, they cannot sign a lease, they cannot drive a motor vehicle, they cannot get divorced. So how are these kids going to raise a family?
And lest we forget — Sherry Johnson, one of the activists leading the charge against child marriage, was 11-years-old when her mother got approval from a judge to force her to marry the 20 year old who raped her. She's not the only one this has happened to, either. It seems to happen most often in religious communities that wish to protect the very holy men who rape children from prosecution.
But hey! These guys probably still think it's preferable for a child to be raised under the same roof as a rapist father and the underage child he impregnated. What could possibly go wrong?
Then there's the third argument, which compares the right of children to marry each other or for adults to marry children to the right of adult same-sex couples to marry each other.
Violation of the right of Wyoming citizens to marry
“Only a generation ago, people were regularly ready for marriage by the age of 15, not 16, and still today many Wyoming couples are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary after having been married prior to 15. In Windsor and Obergefell, the Supreme Court of the United States asserted a “right to marry” beyond all reason and logic. Now HB 7, contrary to all reason and logic, would strip away that right from people who actually have a legitimate reason to marry, and who desire to give their child a stable and loving home. This is unjust both to child and parents.”
"People who actually have a legitimate reason to marry." Cute.
It seems necessary to point out here that for the last few years, Republicans have been crying their faces off about how innocent children need to be allowed to be innocent children — which in their minds means not telling them that LGBTQ people exist, not telling them that racism exists, and not allowing drag queens to read books to them. Earlier this month in Wyoming, the Senate passed a bill to criminalize gender-affirming care on the grounds that they don't think a young person can know if they are transgender or not.
And yet here they are, pushing for children of any age to be able to marry, and to be able to marry an adult of any age, so long as a parent and a judge sign off on it. It's almost as if they have a very specific agenda that has nothing to do with protecting children so much as it has to do with trying to win the culture war.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse