End child marriage in the U.S.? You might be surprised who’s opposed.


A bill that would have ended child marriage in Idaho — which has no minimum age for couples who want to wed — died in the Statehouse earlier this year.

Republican lawmakers, who control the Legislature, opposed it, including state Rep. Bryan Zollinger, who said it “went too far.”

“Obviously, I’m against child marriage,” the GOP lawmaker told NBC News. “But basically marriage is a contract between people that shouldn’t require government permission.”

Even as more states take action to end child marriage, concerns about government overreach, along with scant data about the extent of the problem, have driven skepticism to reform across the country, sometimes creating unlikely alliances between conservative politicians and groups often on the other side, including the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.

In California and Louisiana, opponents of change have argued that raising the minimum marriage age is an ineffective solution since other child welfare laws already can prevent young girls from being exploited.And other states, such as Massachusetts, have raised doubts about the extent of the problem, even as experts note that survivors are often reluctant to come forward.

Idaho has the highest rate of child marriages in the U.S., according to a national report from Unchained at Last, an organization dedicated to ending the practice in the U.S. The Democratic sponsor of the Idaho legislation, which would have set the marriage age at 16, said that she thought her bill was “a modest compromise.”

However, Idaho State Rep. Christy Zito, who voted alongside Zollinger against the measure, said she was concerned about protecting the “sanctity of family.” She added that there are sufficient safeguards in state law — such as a judicial review of underage marriages — to prevent older men from exploiting young girls, an issue she said she has not seen evidence of in Idaho.

In California, a bill to set the minimum marriage age at 18 — the state’s age of consent — failed in 2017 after objections from lawmakers and liberal groups such as the state’s American Civil Liberties Union. The state currently has no minimum marriage age and collects little to no data on child marriages.

The ACLU argued that the bill “unnecessarily and unduly intrudes on the fundamental rights of marriage without sufficient cause,” adding that “largely banning marriage under 18, before we have evidence regarding the nature and severity of the problem, however, puts the cart before the horse.”

Other groups, like Planned Parenthood and The National Center for Youth Law, a youth advocacy organization, agreed.

In New Hampshire, it took Cassandra Levesque and other advocates several tries to raise the minimum marriage age to 16.

After Levesque learned that the state’s minimum marriage age was 14 for boys and 13 for girls, she made the issue a focus of a Girl Scout project, compiling research, contacting her state representatives and reaching out to advocacy groups. In 2017, a bill was introduced in the state House to raise the marriage age to 16 — the state’s statutory age of consent.

“I was just trying to get as many people behind this as possible,” Levesque, now 20, told NBC News.

But a legislative maneuver killed the bill indefinitely after state GOP Rep. David Bates and others raised concerns about whether teens could marry while one of them was deployed for military service. Bates lambasted Levesque and scolded his colleagues in a speech on the state House floor at the time.

“We’re asking the legislature to repeal a law that’s been on the books for over a century, that’s been working without difficulty, on the basis of a request from a minor doing a Girl Scout project,” he said.

Despite the opposition Levesque faced, she was able to work with representatives to draft a new bill setting the age limit at 16, which later passed. And last year, at age 19, she decided more needed to be done on the issue and ran for a House seat in the state. She won that race and is now working to raise the minimum marriage age to 18.

“This time, I had all my bases covered,” Levesque said. “It’s definitely a big issue I’m trying to fight.”

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