A bill to raise the legal age of marriage in Utah from 16 to 18 is making its way to the full House after a committee gave its initial support on Monday.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said her bill will help protect vulnerable teens, especially those in abusive relationships.
“You’re not allowed to go to an emergency shelter for domestic violence until you’re 18. You’re not allowed to sign contracts unless you’re over the age of 18,” she said. “It is our duty, yes as parents, to make sure that our children are safe.”
Although Romero said she’d like a firm cap on 18, a substitute from Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, would carve out a few exceptions.
For 16- and 17-year-olds, individuals would have to seek approval from a juvenile court judge in order to get married. A judge could also impose requirements such as completing pre-marriage counseling and finishing school.
Under current Utah law, 15-year-olds are able to seek court approval for marriage, while 16- and 17-year-olds are only required to get parental consent. Romero’s bill would eliminate 15-year-olds from getting married altogether.
About a half dozen people spoke in support of the measure, including Heidi Clark of Orem. Clark was pressured into getting married at 17 after getting pregnant and ended up in an abusive relationship.
"The pressure unique to a child marriage is absolutely real,” she said, her voice breaking. “It traps our daughters and sons in unhappy and unsafe environments.”
Only one person spoke against the bill, Nicholeen Peck, who argued exceptions should be made for pregnant teens.
“I do have people I know who got married because they had an unplanned pregnancy and similarly have been married for 30-plus years, and they’re happy,” said Peck. “I think we need .... to make sure we still leave that opportunity open for people.”
Before the bill gets to the full House, more changes are expected. That includes a possible provision that would limit the age gap allowed between a teenager and a consenting adult.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, said he’d like the age gap not to exceed seven years. Romero said she may offer an amendment when the bill gets to the House floor.
“This is a first step,” said Romero after the hearing.