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Currently, Wyoming allows marriage at any age. A bill could change that

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A bill that would raise the minimum marriage age to 18 in Wyoming recently passed the House after three readings. It will now be considered by the Senate.

Wyoming is currently one of eight states that allow for marriage at any age. An existing statute has a suggested age of 16 but provisions of it allow for marriage to occur below that age with parental or guardian consent and a judge's approval. The bill would set the minimum age at 18 without consent of a parent or guardian and 16 with it. It would also allow a judge to allow a marriage license to be issued if one or both of the parties marrying are minors. A previous bill to set a minimum marriage age was introduced by Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) in 2019. It ultimately failed and didn’t include exceptions for parental or guardian consent and set a hard limit at age 18.

“The legislature was designed in part to be a constitutional process of balancing interests, it’s one of the hardest things we have to do, and to me, this bill is a representation of how hard that can be,” said Rep. Martha Lawley (R-Worland). “People go into those states deliberately for the purpose of finding and grooming young girls and marrying them and that marriage becomes the slamming door of a cell for those women and that's why this issue matters to me. It matters to me. Are we giving up some things here? Yeah, a little bit. That's what balancing of interests ultimately does is we have to give up some things.”

The 36-25-1 vote came amidst concerns from some legislators that underage marriages allow for exploitation and abuse of underage persons, especially minor girls marrying older men.

“Currently, in Wyoming you could be married younger than you can legally consent to sex,” said Rep. Liz Storer (D-Jackson). “Think about what that means. A man rapes a child [and] is the man charged with rape? Not if the child is forced to marry him, which is often the case. Our laws currently create a legal loophole that allows men to skirt statutory rape charges and allows that same abuse to continue under a marriage license.”

There were approximately 4,200 marriage licenses issued in the state over the past 11 years. Around 20 marriages where at least one of the parties are 18 or younger occur each year.

However, other legislators viewed the bill as unnecessary.

“It would be great if we could just put some words on a page and end all of this, but it's still going to happen. Yes, we want to try to curb it,” said Rep. Ken Pendergraft (R-Sheridan). “The more power we give government to interfere in people's lives and tell them what they can and can't do the less liberty we have. I'm here and I was elected because I stand for liberty. Yes, I am aware that there are horrible problems we have to deal with, including human trafficking, and we need to be involved with that. We need to understand how that works. I just don't believe that this band aid would be a good solution.”

If passed by the Senate and made into law, existing marriages where either one or both of the parties were under the age of 18 won’t have their marriages voided.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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