Wyoming Lawmakers Spar Over Child Marriage, Scolded By Senate President

The Wyoming Senate on Thursday resoundingly passed a bill banning marriages for children 15 and younger after an argument about whether the bill's sponsor would be willing to change it to allow anyone younger than 18 to marry with permission of both a judge and a parent.

Clair McFarland

February 16, 20235 min read

Collage Maker 16 Feb 2023 01 28 PM

A proposed Wyoming law forbidding people 15 and younger from getting married passed the state Senate on Thursday after fending off some attempts to change it.   

House Bill 7 would allow teens ages 16 and 17 to marry with a guardian’s permission, but would outlaw marriages for younger teens. People 18 and older could still get married without special permissions.   

State senators launched into a debate that prompted Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, to chastise them.   

It began when Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, proposed an amendment to HB 7 that she said would have set the legal marriage age at 18 but would allow anyone younger 18 to get married with permission from both a judge and a guardian. The Senate rejected that amendment.  

Wyoming law now says there’s no bottom marriage age, but people 15 and younger only can get married with guardian permission and special approval from a judge.   

Zwonitzer’s Blessing?  

Hutchings said that she brought the amendment after getting approval from the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne.   

Zwonitzer, a member of the state House, was not present for the Senate debate. But Hutchings sparred with bill co-sponsor Sen. Cale Case, R-Cheyenne, about whether Zwonitzer actually favored Hutchings’ amendment.   

“I don’t think that there’s an agreement that this is a good amendment,” said Case, asking senators to vote against it. “I submit to you that the main sponsor does not support this amendment.”   

Hutchings rebuked the claim, saying she’d had a phone call with Zwonitzer in which he agreed with the amendment twice.   

“And he agreed once the next day,” Hutchings added. “For someone that was outside our conversation to say he’s not in agreement, that’s sad.”  

In a text to Cowboy State Daily, Zwonitzer did not confirm his support of the amendment, or lack thereof, either way.   

“I always appreciate the Senate considering what works best for Wyoming,” he said, adding that he did support a third amendment, which Case brought and the Senate approved, which specifies that emancipated teens 16 and older can marry without special permission. 

Keep Private Conversations Private 

Driskill told Hutchings and Case after the debate that if they reference private conversations with legislators during a debate on the Senate floor, he will be more strict in the future and shut it down.   

Legislative rules tend to prioritize substantive discussions on topics, even to the point of forbidding most proper nouns and other strong associations.   

Hutchings apologized for going against the rules.   

“I was in my passionate debate and was incensed by an accusation,” she said.   

Case apologized directly to Hutchings, but said he still believes what he said about Zwonitzer’s stance.   

“There might be a misunderstanding, Mr. President, but we’re a good Senate, we’re good senators and I’ll do my best,” said Case.   

Hutchings reportedly made a dismissive gesture with her hand.  

Bill Passes  

After the debate about changes to HB 7, the Senate passed it 23-7. 

It will go back to the state House for a vote of concurrence in which the House will either ratify the change the Senate made to it or appoint a committee to debate that change. Then, barring a governor’s veto, the bill will become law.   

Proponents of HB 7 argue that it protects young girls from being trafficked and prevents Wyoming from being used as a haven state for statutory rapists.   

“If you don’t believe that the marriage of a 14-year-old girl is not in some form exploitation,” said Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, in an argument Thursday in favor of the bill. “I assure you, it’s not the fantasy of two teenagers who fall in love. It’s much different and much more exploitive.”   

Nethercott said that because Wyoming is one of eight states that has not created a minimum marriage age, it could become a haven for adult men seeking to avoid statutory rape charges by getting married here. 

Teen Marriages Dwindling Each Year  

Opponents of the bill, conversely, have said throughout legislative talks that it erodes family autonomy and unfairly prevents precocious, pregnant teens from getting married. On Thursday, bill opponents said it simply wasn’t needed.   

Senate Majority Floor Leader Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, said the bill looks like a solution without a problem, or with a “self-correcting” problem.   

Nobody younger than 14 has gotten married in Wyoming since 1995, according to state Department of Health data. The last 14-year-old who was married in the state did so in 2012. The last 15-year-old was in 2015. Marriages involving 16- and 17-year-olds are uncommon and are dwindling year by year.   

“This is a self-correcting problem in the society we live in today,” said Hicks.   

Those voting in favor of the bill were Republican Sens. Anderson, Eric Barlow (Gillette), Brian Boner (Douglas), Anthony Bouchard (Cheyenne), Evie Brennan (Cheyenne), Case, Ed Cooper (Tensleep), Tim French (Powell), Dan Furphy (Laramie), Stacy Jones (Rock Springs), Dave Kinskey (Sheridan), John Kolb (Rock Springs), Bill Landen (Casper), Dan Laursen (Powell), Nethercott, Stephan Pappas (Cheyenne), Wendy Schuler (Evanston), Charlie Scott (Casper) and Driskill.   

Democratic Sens. Mike Gierau (Jackson) and Chris Rothfuss (Laramie) also voted in favor of the bill.  

Voting against the bill were Republican Sens. Fred Baldwin (Kemmerer), Dan Dockstader (Afton), Hicks, Hutchings, Bob Ide (Casper), Troy McKeown (Gillette) and Tim Salazar (Riverton).   

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter