Proposed legislation could legalize child marriage in Tennessee

Published: Apr. 5, 2022 at 10:51 PM EDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Some Tennessee Republicans want to make common law marriage legal. But the bill being pushed through the legislature this week doesn’t have any age requirements and opponents say that paves the way for allowing child marriage.

Twenty-four Tennessee Republicans are sponsoring this legislation and right now it is making headlines around the world. Newsweek, The Hill and The Daily Mail in the U.K. have all written about it, Twitter is all abuzz about it, and all eyes are on the Volunteer State as people wonder if the state’s lawmakers are about to legalize child marriage.

State Rep. Tom Leatherwood, the Republican from Shelby County who represents Arlington, sponsored House Bill 233, introducing it in the Children and Family Affairs Subcommittee on April 23. The legislation is designed to legalize common law marriage in Tennessee as a way to push back against the LGBTQ movement.

“I’ve seen a change in the tide, and if there’s any hostility, it’s against those people who do believe marriage comes from God, not from government and do believe it’s between a man and a woman,” said Leatherwood.

“What’s the age limit on this bill?” inquired Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville, “My concern would be you’re changing the law and we have strict age limits on marriage in Tennessee and I don’t think we want to get away from that.”

“So your current language does not have an age limit? You’re aware our current law does have an age limit and you know what that age limit is?” Rep. Torrey Harris of Memphis asked Leatherwood.

Current Tennessee law states you can get married as young as 17 if you have parental consent. Critics worry House Bill 233, if passed, would pave the way for child marriage and child sex abuse.

“What in your legislation would stop a 16-year-old from going down with someone else to the courthouse and getting this done, since there’s no age restriction within your law?” asked Rep. Harris.

“I think it would be construed that minors would not be able to enter into this,” Leatherwood replied.

“So it would be assumed?” said Harris. “So we’re going to take the assumption that minors would not be included in this?”

Rep. Rush Bricken, a Republican from Tullahoma, said HB 233 simply creates new paperwork for couples to fill out if they want their union to be a common-law marriage, and not a marriage requiring a license from the state.

“We’re making a whole bunch to do and getting off in the weeds here when this strictly is a form, and we should give our citizens the right to choose,” said Bricken.

Harris said if the bill ultimately passes, it would likely lead to a 14th amendment court challenge.

“We have no age limit in this legislation and that’s very much a problem,” said Harris.

State Senator Raumesh Akbari from Memphis told Action News 5: “It’s ugly enough Republicans are advancing an unconstitutional bill to undermine marriage equality, but the fact that this bill reopens the debate on child marriage is outrageous. Kids need time to grow and mature. Kids need to be kids, not brides and mothers.”

The bill passed the House subcommittee and now goes before the House Civil Justice Committee on April 6, and the full Senate will hear the bill on Thursday, April 7.

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