Idaho Legislature is falling short in its duty to protect children

Idaho State Capitol.
Idaho State Capitol. Statesman file

Idaho lawmakers have missed three opportunities in this legislative session to protect children, deferring instead to parental authority.

While we believe families should have wide latitude in deciding what’s best for their members, the Legislature should reconsider the bills and seek a way to balance individual freedoms against the state’s responsibility to safeguard the health and safety of its most vulnerable residents.

Current Idaho law says 16- and 17-year-olds may marry with the consent of their parents. Children younger than 16 may marry if a judge also consents. There is no minimum age for a legal marriage. As the law stands now, a 13-year-old can marry a 30-year-old if the parents and a judge sign off. And it happens. By one estimate, 4,080 Idaho youths were wed from 2000 to 2010; the youngest was 13, and most were girls. That was the highest rate in the nation.

A bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, would have set 16 as the minimum age, and then only with permission from parents and the courts until 18. That’s still a wide window for a lot of young brides and grooms, but it would have been a step toward recognizing that younger teenagers are not mature enough to make informed and rational decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. They are also more susceptible to coercion and manipulation than are older teens and young adults.

Yet the House shot it down on a 39-28 vote.

Setting the rules of legal marriage is a legitimate function of the state. As such, the state has a responsibility to assure the marriages it sanctions are between two people who are fully capable of understanding the consequences. There’s no societal benefit to child marriages, and no circumstances so compelling that they should be permitted at an age younger than 16. Allowing such unions can easily lead to exploitation of young girls through forced marriages and, quite frankly, sexual assault.

There’s a reason the government places a threshold of 18 years old for voting and military service, and 21 drinking. Adult privileges should be reserved for adults.

On other matters affecting the welfare of children, lawmakers passed a bill that will change the current opt-out system for sex education classes to an opt-in system. Backers of the bill favored a strict abstinence-only curriculum in sex ed classes, and didn’t want students to be taught about contraceptives. But all children should have the facts about how their bodies work, how babies are made, the difference between safe and dangerous sex, and how pregnancies can be prevented. It is in the state’s interest to help prevent teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Finally, it is disappointing that in the midst of a nationwide resurgence in measles and a recent outbreak in neighboring Washington, the Legislature failed to tighten Idaho’s lax child vaccination requirements. Allowing unvaccinated students to attend public schools puts others at risk, and could lead to unnecessary deaths.

These three measures are not overly intrusive on parental rights, but they do provide basic safeguards for Idaho children. Lawmakers should have gotten behind them.

Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board.