A push against underage marriage in the U.S. is coming to Utah, where a lawmaker wants to raise the legal age to 18 to prevent girls from being pressured into the unions associated with higher poverty and lower education rates.
High-profile teen marriage cases in Utah have happened in polygamous groups involving leaders like Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life prison sentence for sexually assaulting girls he considered wives. But it’s not the only place where it’s an issue.
There have been thousands of underage marriages in the U.S. since 2000, and until recently more than half of states didn’t set a limit on how young someone could be to get married if they met criteria like parental approval, said Jeanne Smoot of the Virginia-based Tahirih Justice Center.
“Many people assume this was something from generations that’s no longer happening in the U.S.,” she said Friday. But marriage data show more than 200,000 Americans younger than 18 got married between 2000 and 2015, she said. “We know there are significant numbers and we know there are some shockingly young minors who are married.”
In Utah, 253 people under age 18, most of them girls, got married in 2010, the most recent year Utah Health Department figures are available.
Under current Utah law, people as young as 15 can marry with permission from their parents and the court, while 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with parental permission.
Utah is in the top third of all states when it comes to children married each year, according to data gathered by the Tahirih Justice Center.
The nonprofit women’s legal advocacy group has pushed for reforms that started in 2016 when Virginia limited marriage to legal adults. Delaware became this first state to ban anyone younger than 18 from getting married, even with parental permission, earlier this year.
Such a law might have changed Heidi Clark’s life. The woman got pregnant at 16 and married soon after, under pressure from her boyfriend’s religious community of Seventh-Day Adventists in Pennsylvania, she said. A second daughter followed days after she graduated from high school, but the marriage went downhill after he husband was injured at work.
“I always felt a little bit like I was trapped,” Clark said, now 40 and living in Orem, Utah. “I was 17. I was so young.”
Determined to make the marriage work, she stayed even as the relationship because abusive. She didn’t go to college and when they divorced she had few job prospects and lost custody of her children. She’s since managed to rebuild her life and her relationship with her daughters but wants to see other girls spared her experience.
Rep. Angela Romero, a Salt Lake City Democrat, is preparing a proposal to raise the legal marriage age for the next legislative session in 2019. Teenage unions are particularly concerning when there is a large age gap between a bride and a groom, or when a there’s pressure to wed due to pregnancy, she said.
“We want to ensure that we’re protecting young women and giving them that choice,” she said.
One woman who said she didn’t have a choice in marriage was Elissa Wall, a Utah woman who testified was forced to marry to her cousin at age 14 when was growing up in the polygamous group led by Jeffs.
Her testimony about the 2001 union helped convict him on an accomplice-to-rape charge. She’s since left the group and was awarded a $16 million judgment last year.
Still, Romero said it’s a wider issue and polygamous groups aren’t her focus. Her proposal would apply to legal marriages; polygamous unions are illegal under the state’s bigamy law.
Utah law now allows a marriage exception to statutory rape laws, opening a potential way to avoid prosecution by marrying the victim, Smoot said.