Government power and family formation

The 2019 Wyoming legislative session is nearly half over. Our elected representatives and senators are in the process of grinding through 499 bills. Some of these have already lost in committee, others lost on the floor. Many will die without ever receiving a hearing, some without even being assigned to a committee.

During all this flurry of activity, it is easy to lose sight of the forest on account of so many trees. Especially, bills that deal with highly personal matters and divisive topics can be argued heatedly with talking points intended to over-simplify and focus on one aspect of a problem while ignoring other relevant aspects.

For instance, HB 60, Underage marriage-exceptions repeal, would have raised Wyoming’s legal age of marriage from 16 years old, under current law, to 18. But that’s not all. It also proposed to prevent any possibility of parents, minors or judges from taking special circumstances into account. That is the reason it was titled “exceptions repeal.”

Current Wyoming law sets the minimum marriage age at 16 but gives a mechanism for those younger than that to apply for an exception. If the parents consent and a judge approves it, they can obtain a marriage license. 

The problem is that there are some truly horrifying stories about minors forced into marriages against their will. That is a form of child abuse that can have lifelong consequences. It is the duty of the state to protect the rights of every citizen, no matter how old, to give informed and free consent to marriage. That contributed to the House Judiciary Committee’s recommendation of the bill on an 8-1 vote. 

In the face of horrific injustices, we instinctively protect people with the strongest exercise of power we can muster. But over the following weekend, legislators began to see more clearly that the abusive acts of some parents are not best handled by unilaterally stripping all parents and adolescent children of the authority to consent to a marriage younger than the norm.

At the end of the day, the only reason the state has an interest in marriage is because the state has a duty to make sure that children are cared for in the best way possible. Marriage does that better than any other institution. 

So why would the state deny marriage to a young couple that wants its child to be born into a stable marriage? How is it better to give the state arbitrary authority over the lives of minors when the original problem was parents who exercised arbitrary authority over the lives of their minor children? 

So, the House amended the original bill raising the age to 18 but reinserting the exceptions. It held that judges are capable of discerning when a minor is free enough from parental control and knowledgeable enough to give meaningful consent. The following day the bill failed after it was amended again, once more stripping young couples of the ability to apply for exceptions.

This interesting saga stands in contrast to another bill that intends to address the coercion of women to consent to another irreversible action. HB 140, Abortion-48 hour waiting period, recognizes that abortion, like marriage, has life-long consequences. 

Just as there are horror stories of people being coerced into marriage, there are also plenty of stories of women being coerced into abortions. It is the duty of the state to protect the human rights of all women not to be coerced into an abortion.

Coercion happens when there is a power differential that is exploited. People in positions of power over a woman, like parents, boyfriends, husbands and abortion providers all have ways to pressure the woman into making the decision that they want, rather than what she wants. 

The Eliot Institute is one of the leading advocates for women who have been forced to abort. In a 2012 report they found that 64 percent of women feel pressured to abort, 79 percent were denied information about available alternatives, 67 percent felt rushed or uncertain and 84 percent were not sufficiently informed before an abortion.

The 48-hour waiting period recognizes the duty of the state to protect women from being coerced into a life-changing decision that she does not want for herself. Unlike HB 60, which flat-out denied some women a choice to marry, the waiting period does not use the power of the state to keep her from making a decision. Rather, it uses the power of the state to make it harder for others to pressure her one way or the other.

We need to pass common sense laws that give women access to information about alternatives. We need to make sure that women have full access to sufficient information about abortion. In a similar vein, HB 140 addresses the 60 percent of women who experienced time pressure. It takes away the ability of abortion providers and authority figures to manipulate her decision using travel distance and time considerations as leverage.

Because pressure to abort is more commonly experienced by young women, it shares in the power dynamic of forced marriages. Proponents of both bills recognized that the state of Wyoming has a duty to protect people in vulnerable positions from pressures placed upon them by those with more power. 

These two bills are related also in the sense that marriage and abortion both have to do with the transition from childhood to adulthood. Ultimately the attainment of adulthood has less to do with an arbitrary age — be it 16, 18 or 21 — and more to do with the maturation of our reproductive systems and the ability to form a family of our own.

Seen through this lens, debate on HB 60, “Underage marriage-exceptions repeal,” and HB 140, “Abortion-48 hour waiting period,” shines a spotlight on two very different exercises of state power. 

One would use the power of government to forbid formation of a family even when a family has already been formed by the conception of a child. The other would use government’s power to shield a vulnerable young woman from more powerful persons who may want her to choose an abortion even while she wants to choose life. 

Life, marriage and family are all pre-political realities. They have been happening long before any laws were ever enacted and will continue to happen long after America is a footnote in world history. 

For this reason, any legislating of these matters should use as light a touch as possible. These mysteries should not be manhandled. They should be respected and upheld as the first duty of government.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at


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