One Tennessee lawmaker has concocted a novel approach to opposing marriage equality: legalizing child marriages.
A bill authored by Tennessee state Rep. Tom Leatherwood would establish a pathway to common law marriages for people of faith who do not agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision allowing same-sex couples to wed. The Republican lawmaker said his proposal, known as House Bill 233, seeks to create an “alternative form of marriage for those pastors and other individuals who have a conscientious objection” to LGBTQ2S+ rights.
“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,” Leatherwood said in comments reported by the Tennessee NBC news affiliate WMC.
Were HB 233 signed into law, individuals entering into marriage would be able to request a certificate reflecting their belief that the institution is designed solely for “one man and one woman.”
LGBTQ2S+ groups have criticized the legislation as a violation of federal law, but HB 233 has also been met with blowback for a loophole that critics say would effectively eliminate age requirements to marry. HB 233 does not establish an age limit on who can enter into the “alternative” marriage it proposes, meaning that toddlers and infants could potentially have the right to wed so long as the union is a heterosexual one. Opponents say children may even be permitted to marry adults under the bill.
Currently, individuals have to be at least 17 years old to enter into a marriage in the state of Tennessee. If a 17-year-old wishes to marry, they must first receive parental consent and cannot marry someone more than four years their senior.
Fellow lawmakers and advocacy organizations said HB 233 could legalize child abuse if signed into law. The Sexual Assault Center of Middle Tennessee said in a statement that lowering the minimum marriage age “makes children more vulnerable to coercion and manipulation from predators,” while Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart told colleagues during committee debate that the proposed law is “a get out of jail free card for people who are basically committing statutory rape.”
“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,” state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat, told WMC. “Kids need time to grow and mature. Kids need to be kids, not brides and mothers.”
Only U.S. six states—including Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island—have fully outlawed child marriages, according to Newsweek. Massachusetts has not set a legal minimum age for minors who receive parental consent, while New Hampshire passed a law in 2019 raising the marriage age from 13 for girls and 14 for boys to 16 for each gender.
Estimates from United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) suggest that nearly 300,000 U.S. minors under the age of 18 were wed between the years of 2000 and 2018.
In response to the controversy, Leatherwood has hinted that he intends to amend HB 233, which is set for a hearing in the Tennessee House Civil Justice Committee on Wednesday. The full Senate is scheduled to hear a companion version of the bill on Thursday, and it could pass after garnering considerable support in both houses. At least 24 GOP legislators have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.
State Sen. Janice Bowling, one such supporter of the legislation, said HB 233 is “very practical.”
“It just declares that the marriage between a man and a woman is not a creation of the state government or its statutes,” the Republican lawmaker told Tennessee CBS affiliate WREG. “It is a common law right. And it relieves ministers from having to sign a state certificate of marriage that violates their conscience for the marriage.”
Its author, meanwhile, has continued to stand behind the bill.
“This bill changes nothing in current law regarding marriage, and does not allow minors to get married,” Leatherwood said in a public statement. “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.”
The legislator also clarified that the bill would not affect the legality of same-sex unions in Tennessee.
“In current law in TN, a man can marry a man, and the marriage certificate reflects that,” he added. “If this bill passes, a man can still marry a man and the certificate would still reflect that.”
Even though marriage equality would not be directly affected by HB 233, Tennessee lawmakers have been attempting to gut the freedom to marry for years. In 2017, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed a law claiming to protect the “natural and ordinary meaning” of words like “mother” and “father,” which LGBTQ2S+ advocates argued was a thinly veiled attack on the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling from two years prior.
The Tennessee GOP has also pushed legislation that would effectively outlaw same-sex marriages in the state and allow adoption and foster agencies to turn away same-sex couples. The latter proposal, Senate Bill 1304, was signed into law in 2020 by Tennessee’s current governor, Republican Bill Lee.