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Tennessee Considers Straights-Only Marriage Option With No Minimum Age

Janice Bowling and Tom Leatherwood
Sen. Janice Bowling and Rep. Tom Leatherwood courtesy Tennessee General Assembly

Legislation to create this process is not only discriminatory but would enable child abuse, opponents say. After public outcry, sponsors have now added an age minimum.

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Some Tennessee politicians just keep resisting marriage equality, even if it means doing away with a minimum age for marriage.

Anti-LGBTQ+ state legislators have tried and failed multiple times to pass bills making specious legal arguments that the state doesn't have to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 marriage equality ruling. Now they are trying to establish a separate marriage registration process for male-female couples who object to the regular process.

House Bill 233 and the companion Senate Bill 562 would set up a way to register common-law marriages that are in keeping with the definition of marriage approved by Tennessee voters. In 2006, voters amended the state's constitution to ban same-sex marriage. The amendment was struck down, along with other state bans, in the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges ruling.

Sponsors of the bills are painting them as harmless. "All this bill does is give an alternative form of marriage for those pastors and other individuals who have a conscientious objection to the current pathway to marriage in our law," the House version's lead sponsor, Republican Rep. Tom Leatherwood, said at a recent subcommittee hearing, according to TV station WKRN.

But limiting the option to opposite-sex couples court result in court challenges, notes the Tennessee Equality Project, which is campaigning against the legislation. It would also create more paperwork for the local government officials who register marriages. But what is really raising red flags is the fact that neither bill originally listed a minimum age for marriage.

"There is not an explicit age limit," Leatherwood acknowledged in the subcommittee hearing. For couples who marry under the existing process, the minimum age is 17.

Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart told WKRN that having no minimum age is preposterous -- and dangerous. "It's basically a get-out-of-jail-free card for people who are basically committing statutory rape -- I mean, it's completely ridiculous, so that's another reason why this terrible bill should be eliminated," he said.

The Sexual Assault Center of Middle Tennessee released a statement saying the center "does not believe the age of consent for marriage should be any younger than it already is. It makes children more vulnerable to coercion and manipulation from predators, sexual and other."

After "widespread public outcry," The Tennessean of Nashville reported Wednesday, "sponsors of the legislation have now added amendments specifying a man and woman seeking the contract must have 'attained the age of majority,' which is 18 in Tennessee."

The Senate version, sponsored by Republican Sen. Janice Bowling, is set for a vote Thursday. The House Civil Justice Committee was scheduled to discuss the House version Wednesday but has now moved the matter to next week.

The legislation remains a "continuation of the backlash over the Obergefell decision," University of Memphis law professor Regina Lambert Hillman, who worked on the case, told The Tennessean. "The sky didn't fall. We have all kinds of married couples in our state that are working, raising families, paying taxes just like our straight counterparts."

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