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Update: Controversial Tennessee marriage bill amended to include age restrictions

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Rep. Tom Leatherwood, the author of the bill, told us via email on Wednesday that " we are amending the bill to explicitly say if both parties have attained the age of majority... defined in Tennessee Code as 18 and older."

"My position is that the legislation would not have ever allowed minors to marry because it forms a marriage contract. Minors have not reached the age of consent," Rep. Leatherwood says.

Depend on us to keep you posted.


A controversial Tennessee bill wouldn't require a marriage license with the state, and it also doesn't have an explicit age requirement.

The bill is something some lawmakers and a local women's advocate say opens the door for child marriages and abuse.

The bill amendment would delete statutes on marriage licensing and ceremonies, limiting the jurisdiction of circuit courts and chancery courts in cases involving the definition of common law marriage.

A common law marriage is a legally recognized marriage between two people who have not purchased a marriage license or had their marriage solemnized by a ceremony, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill’s sponsor, Tom Leatherwood (R-Arlington) says the law being considered would add a new marriage option for Tennesseans.

“So, 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," says Leatherwood.

He says this bill was inspired by the deeply-held religious beliefs of himself and others in the state.

He says it wouldn't require the marriage to be filed with the state afterwards, but the couple could file it if they choose to.

Two representatives from the Children and Family Affairs Subcommittee expressed concerns that there isn't an age requirement included in the bill.

We reached out to Leatherwood Tuesday and he gave the following statement:

"This bill changes nothing in current law regarding marriage and does not allow minors to get married. It establishes another pathway to marriage in TN law that addresses the conscientious objections, based on deeply held religious convictions, that a number of pastors and individuals have with the current law and certificate. This bill would produce a marriage certificate that would reflect marriage as being between one man and one woman. This certificate would be filed with the county clerk.
In current law in TN, a man can marry a man, and the marriage certificate reflects that. If this bill passes, a man can still marry a man and the certificate would still reflect that. But there would also be an alternative form that would say, marriage is between a man and a woman and a certificate would reflect that."

Representative Mike Stewart (D-Nashville), who sits on the subcommittee the bill passed out of, said he doesn’t understand the motivation, according to WKRN.

“I don’t think any normal person thinks we shouldn’t have an age requirement for marriage," says Stewart.

He added it could open up the possibility to cover up child sex abuse.

“It should not be there as 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,” Steward says.

The Women's Fund of Greater Chattanooga advocates for women's rights and safety, and one of its directors shared her concerns.

"Once you create a loophole to avoid a system of protection, that loophole is available to everyone," Jeannine Carpenter says.

Carpenter says she worries the bill could come with dangerous consequences:

"Really rolls back protections that we have in place to protect people from child marriage, from forced marriage, from coerced marriage, from people being victims of trafficking by way of marriage," says Carpenter.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) called the legislation “outrageous" in a press release.

“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,” Sen. Akbari said. “Kids need time to grow and mature. Kids need to be kids — not brides and mothers," says Akbari.

The bill has 24 Republican sponsors and co-sponsors.

The Senate legislation is scheduled for a vote by the full Senate on Thursday, April 7.

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This is a developing story and will be updated.

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