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Panel clears marriage-age bill

If one parent and a judge don't object, 14- and 15-year-olds can legally marry in Utah.

Dozens tie the knot every year, despite not being old enough to drive or hold a full-time job.State lawmakers could put an end to that practice by passing HB301, which raises the legal minimum age for marriage to 16.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 7-1 Friday to send the measure on to the full House.

Rep. Carl Saunders, R-Weber, said he wants to put an end to Utah's reputation as a place to get an "easy and early" marriage. He hopes his bill will cut down on promiscuity and divorce.

"I've had many people say, `What possible reason could there be for someone 14 or 15 to get married?' " Saunders told the committee. "It's impossible for them to be mature enough."

The bill would actually make it easier for 16- and 17-year-olds to marry. They would still need parental consent but would no longer need approval from a juvenile judge.

If the bill passes, judges would no longer have a role in approving or rejecting marriages by young people. Saunders said juvenile judges implored him to propose the bill because they are uncomfortable being in the position of evaluating an individual's maturity and readiness for marriage.

Most other states limit the legal age of marriage to 16, he said. In fact, many youngsters are coming to Utah because they know they can get married here, he said.

Rep. Glenn Way, R-Spanish Fork, suggested the bill might be "going after" a different group - Utah polygamists. If that's the goal, he suggested, it might not achieve its aim, since many polygamist marriages are carried out without a marriage license or other official recognition.

"It's certainly not my intent to target one particular part of the population," Saunders responded.

Way was among the seven committee members who voted for the bill. He said he was 23 when he married and joked that he still wonders if he was mature enough, even at that age, to make such a major decision.

Rep. Tammy Rowan, R-Orem, cast the lone dissenting vote. She is concerned changing the law would encourage teens to run away from home or live with their partner out of wedlock.

The bill has the support of the Utah Parent Teacher Association.

Kathryn Colvin, speaking for the state PTA, told the committee there is a physical, neurological change that occurs in a person at about age 16 that enables decision-making in matters of love and consent. Prior to that age, she said, young people are unable to make wise decisions in such matters.