Session recap: You gotta fight for your right … to marry children

As the Wyoming Freedom Caucus rose to prominence during the 2023 legislative session, many wondered: What types of freedom, exactly, is the caucus interested in fighting for?

Here’s one: The “right” to marry children younger than 16.

“Child Marriage Freedom!” became a rallying cry for both the Wyoming Freedom Caucus and far-right leaders of the Wyoming State Republican Party during the Legislature’s 2023 session, which wrapped up earlier this month.

Their arguments against House Bill 7 – Underage marriage-amendments were a combination of religious fundamentalism and far-fetched constitutional interpretations.

Fortunately, the majority of legislators saw past the fringe radicals and voted to set a minimum age of 18 to marry in Wyoming with no restrictions. 

Notably, Sen. Anthony Bouchard, who once married a 15-year-old child himself, voted “aye.”

Teens 16 and 17 can get married, but only with the permission of a judge, plus either parents or a legal guardian.

HB-7, which makes it illegal for anyone under 16 to get married in any circumstances, passed the House by a 36 – 25 vote. The entire Freedom Caucus—which almost always votes as a bloc—was on the losing end. 

“Pretty mature” children

Floor debate between the Freedom Caucus and the legislature’s more moderate members effectively summed up the views of both sides. 

“Currently, in Wyoming you can get married younger than you can legally consent to sex,” said Rep. Liz Storer (D-Jackson). “Think about what that means. A man rapes a child. Is the man charged with rape? Not if the child is forced to marry him.”

Rep. Scott Smith (R-Lingle), a Freedom Caucus member, offered a different perspective. 

“In my community, there are groups of people who don’t involve themselves much in the government,” Smith said. “They like a simple lifestyle. Their children seem to be pretty mature. So, I will be voting no.”

Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) said marriage at 14 isn’t the fantasy of two teenagers who fall in love. “It’s much different and much more exploitive,” she said.

The Senate passed HB-7 with a 23 – 7 vote. 

Notably, Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), who once married a 15-year-old child himself, voted “aye.”

Fundamentalist opposition

Prior to the new law, Wyoming was one of only eight states that did not have a minimum age requirement to get married. 

The number of child marriages has dropped in Wyoming to an average of about 20 per year. But in 2021, Wyoming was still in the top 10 states for its number of child marriages.

Prior to the Senate vote, the Wyoming Republican Party sent out an action alert claiming that HB-7 would “deny the fundamental purpose of marriage”—raising together under one roof any child they conceive, regardless of the parents’ age. 

The party said under the U.S. Constitution, parents have “the God-given responsibility to raise their own children.” Of course, the constitution says no such thing. 

Because children younger than 16 can “beget and bear” children, the religious extremists added, marriage must remain open to them for the sake of those children. 

Too little to protect children

Beyond the obvious child rape issue, the social costs of child marriages are high. 

The National Library of Medicine reports that both early teen marriage and subsequent dropping out of high school “have historically been associated with a variety of negative outcomes, including higher poverty rates throughout life.”

“If you’re failing to protect 97 percent of the people you’re claiming to protect, you don’t really have the right to brag.”

HB-7 supporters like Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), who sponsored the bill, said the new law will help protect children. But not everyone agrees. 

Unchained at Last, a national group, wants to see a ban on marriage for everyone under 18. Frady Reiss, the group’s founder, said 1,260 children — 97 percent of them 16- or 17-years-old girls — were married in Wyoming from 2000 to 2019. The youngest were 14 years old.

“It’s really great the legislators want to protect 3 percent of those who are impacted by child marriage,” Unchained’s founder, Frady Reiss, told Newsweek before the Legislature’s final vote. “But to us, if you’re failing to protect 97 percent of the people you’re claiming to protect, you don’t really have the right to brag.”

A long road to common sense

The new law was the only compromise that could be reached after years of trying to convince religious fundamentalists. 

Retired Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie) sponsored bills every session to set the minimum marriage at 18 years old. Zwonitzer’s bill is the only one that ever gained traction, thanks to the support of moderate Republicans and the Legislature’s Democrats working together.

In fact, one of the issues that helped sell the bill in the Senate and got the final green-light in the House was an amendment sponsored by Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander). It allowed legally emancipated 16- and 17-year-olds to get married, with no need for approval from parents or a judge.

The fight over child marriage shows that while the Freedom Caucus and Wyoming GOP executives can try to use religion and a complete misrepresentation of the Constituton on behalf of a position most people find appalling, they can’t always keep a decent bill from becoming law.

Religious fundamentalists in the Wyoming Freedom Caucus and the Wyoming State GOP fought tooth and nail for the “freedom” to continue marrying children. Fortunately, this was one of many fights that they lost in 2023, as the Legislature passed its first law prohibiting marriage for children under 16.