Bryan Zollinger

Zollinger

Two Idaho Falls lawmakers are working on a bill to put some limits on child marriage in Idaho.

Reps. Bryan Zollinger and Barbara Ehardt, Republicans who represent District 33, plan to co-sponsor it during the 2020 legislative session. The details are still being hashed out, but it would set a minimum age for marriage, likely of 14, 15 or 16. Idaho has no minimum age currently; 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with their parents’ consent, and younger children can marry if a judge signs off.

Zollinger and Ehardt’s proposal wouldn’t change the law for 16- and 17-year-olds, still letting them marry with parental permission. This is one big difference between their bill and one Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, introduced during the 2019 session. Wintrow’s bill, which the House voted down 39-28 with Zollinger and Ehardt among the “No” votes, would have banned marriage for children under 16 and required both parental and judicial consent for 16- and 17-year-olds.

“We felt that the bill last (session) put too much authority in the government’s hands and took (authority) away from families,” Zollinger said.

Ehardt said their bill would include some version of an age range within which underage teenagers could marry older people, although the details are being worked out. Wintrow’s bill would have limited marriages of 16- and 17-year-olds to partners three years older or less.

Most states allow children under 18 to marry under some circumstances, such as with parental or court approval or if the girl is pregnant, although even with these exceptions many states set absolute minimum ages ranging from 14 to 17. Idaho is one of about a dozen states that have no minimum age. Bills to make child marriage laws stricter have passed in numerous states over the past few years; most recently, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill this week setting a minimum marriage age of 18.

National groups such as Unchained at Last and Girls not Brides have been pushing legislation in many states to outlaw marriage for those under 18. Between 2000 and 2010, Idaho had the highest per-capita rate of child marriage in the United States out of the 38 states that track the data, according to data from Unchained at Last.

In eastern Idaho’s public health districts 6 and 7 from 2012 to 2016, there were 159 marriages, or a little over 1 percent of the almost 14,000 total marriages, where one of the parties was under 18, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Of them, 130 involved a bride under 18 and a groom older than 18.

“My first reaction is that I’m glad to see that my colleagues are responding to the public outcry and the outrage of that not passing,” Wintrow said of Ehardt and Zollinger’s bill. “I’ve had reporters from across the Atlantic Ocean contact me. … So I am glad to hear that my colleagues are doing what’s in their political best interest and responding to the outcry, because I do think it was seen as very unreasonable.”

Ehardt and Zollinger both said they oppose child marriage but were worried Wintrow’s bill would have infringed on parents’ rights too much. The Idaho House’s vote got some national media attention, and both lawmakers said they received a lot of criticism for their votes.

“It was so bad, and so misleading, because that was never the case” that we support children marrying grown men, Ehardt said. “We have, right here in Idaho Falls, those that continue to perpetuate that very false narrative. And it’s wrong, and after a while it gets frustrating. So I decided to bring my own child marriage bill … given how much Bryan and I have been criticized by the left. They’re claiming we want to marry children off to old men, which is (so) far from the truth.”

Both said the colleagues they have talked to have mostly supported their proposal.

“Everyone is frustrated that we have been demonized claiming we want to marry children off to old people,” Ehardt said.

“Everyone was really kind of miffed and even upset with what happened last year when we voted that bill down,” Zollinger said. “Like we said, we thought it was trying to replace family with government and just went too far.”

Wintrow has been working during the interim to draw attention to child marriage, including talking about it in media appearances and to various people with an interest in the issue; meeting with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, to discuss introducing another bill next year; and writing an op-ed with high school student Gracie Messier that ran in newspapers statewide. Messier presented a version of Wintrow’s bill at the Girls State mock legislature this year, where it passed unanimously. Wintrow said she has heard from many people who were shocked her bill didn’t pass, including getting numerous handwritten letters from a Girl Scout troop in Pocatello.

“Teenagers get it,” she said Thursday. “Teenagers are saying, ‘Hey, don’t allow this.’ We need to listen to that. Our own children are saying this is inappropriate.”

Wintrow believes the minimum age to marry should be 18; she has said she proposed 16 as a compromise. She said if people under 18 are allowed to marry, requiring court approval can at least ensure the child isn’t being coerced.

“I am just unclear as to why people are fearful about a court being able to make sure that there’s not abuse of a child,” she said.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.