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Correction: The following story has been updated to reflect that the Wyoming Republican Party issued an “action alert” to party members, warning that HB 7 may not be “harmless” and causes “concerns about constitutional rights,” but the analytical analysis against the bill was composed by Capitol Watch For Families.
By Clair McFarland, General Assignment Reporter
Just as a proposed Wyoming law disallowing marriages for people 15 and younger survived its first state Senate floor vote Thursday, state Republican Party leadership is warning members about the bill, dispatching an argument that there could be cases where 15-year-olds should be allowed to marry.
“This bill may seem harmless, but there are concerns about constitutional rights that you need to form your own opinions about,” reads a Thursday mass email on behalf of the Wyoming Republican Party Central Committee referencing House Bill 7.
The bill would void future marriages involving people younger than 16, but would allow 16- or 17-year-olds to get married with parental consent.
Can Get Pregnant, But Not Married
The mass email contains a linked analysis by Capitol Watch For Wyoming Families, urging people to email state legislators about their opposition to HB 7.
The key issue, the analysis states, is that children ages 15 and younger still can get pregnant but could no longer get married legally if the law passes.
This denies the right of the teen’s baby to be raised in a stable home by his or her mother and father, the document says, citing the state Constitution’s promise of equal protection as a basis.
“Parents, by virtue of their right to conceive children, have the pre-political, i.e. God-given, responsibility to raise their own children,” the document continues. “This right and responsibility includes guiding their own maturing children into the estate of Holy Matrimony.”
By evoking the equal protection premise, the analysis is implying that the law would discriminate against unborn children and babies conceived premaritally by teens younger than 16 by denying those babies the ability to be raised by married parents.
The analysis also condemns HB 7 as an erosion of parental rights, saying that parents can be the judge of when their children are entering into “properly desired and well-ordered marriages.”
The bill’s sponsor Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, called the pregnancy and discrimination arguments “audacious.”
“I think it’s audacious for the Republican Party (leadership) to suggest that as soon as you can give birth to a child you should be allowed to get married,” Zwonitzer told Cowboy State Daily on Friday.
Zwonitzer referred to the party having attached the Capitol Watch analysis. “There are 12- and 13-year-olds in the country who wind up with pregnancies, and we certainly don’t want them to be able to get married, in my opinion.”
Zwonitzer said the equal protection argument is without merit, adding that babies born to younger teens still can be raised by those teens, and a baby’s parents still can get married once both parties are 16 or older.
But what the law seeks to prevent, said Zwonitzer, are more concerning, possibly coercive, situations.
“You don’t want a 30-year-old who impregnates a 12-year-old to be able to marry them and get around all of our other child protection laws,” he said. “I find that argument disingenuous.”
A Judge’s Ability
Under Wyoming law, parents now can apply to a judge to allow their child younger than 16 to be married.
People 16 and 17 can get married with parental consent, but don’t need special permission from a judge.
The analysis linked to the state GOP’s email states that this avenue – giving judges discretion and the ability to confer with parents and look into teen-marriage situations on a case-by-case basis – is the best practice.
Zwonitzer’s concerns of sex-crime or coercion situations, reads the analysis, “are already covered by current law that requires a judge to investigate” the proposed marriage.
“It is rather insulting to say that Wyoming judges are not up to the task that has been given them by law,” the analysis reads, adding that if the Legislature would like to add definition to the judge’s discretionary ability with respect to teen marriages, that would be a suitable remedy to what the party called bill proponents’ hypothetical concerns.
Who’s The Judge
Zwonitzer disagrees with that compromise.
“No, I think Wyoming should actually just make the statement that we don’t allow child marriage,” he said, adding that, “42 other states have.”
In an earlier speech to the state House of Representatives, Zwonitzer emphasized that the definition of “judge” in state marriage statutes is broad enough to give municipal magistrates the ability to let young teens marry.
Not Like It Used To Be
There are many Wyomingites who have been happily wed for decades after having married at 15, according to legislative testimony and the state GOP’s analysis.
“The sad fact that physical maturity often does not match emotional and intellectual maturity is an indictment of our modern educational system,” the document states. “That is a problem that should be addressed. But we should not use it as an excuse to instantiate bad law.”
Zwonitzer said the analysis’ acknowledgement that most teens in modern society are not mature enough to marry is contrary to the Party’s cause in issuing the alert.
“The Republican Party (leadership) has gotten so ideologically away from mainstream society that even trying to comment on some of their outrageous claims is difficult,” said Zwonitzer. “They’re trying to attack our education system while promoting 12- and 13-year-olds can be married.
“It’s not congruent and it’s not even worthy of debate in the legislative arena.”
HB 7 passed its first Senate committee meeting unanimously Thursday with four delegates in favor and one absent.
It then advanced to the Senate floor for its first and most rigorous vote – a process called “committee of the whole” that involves thorough debate. The vote was close, with 15 senators in favor of HB 7 and 12 voting against.
The bill must survive two more Senate floor votes, a final nod from the House if it’s altered and the governor’s desk to become law.
Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, opposed the bill, saying it erodes rights based on anecdotes of “hypothetical harms” that the data in Wyoming do not reflect.
Wyoming Department of Health data shows that generally minor marriages in Wyoming involve 16- and 17-year-olds, not younger teens.
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