A Republican Tennessee legislator is pushing a bill that would create a class of marriage specifically defined as only being between a man and a woman. The bill could also allow children to be married to adults, no matter their age, and lawmakers could vote on it this week.
The bill’s lead sponsor, state Rep. Tom Leatherwood (R), said that the law is needed to help ease the consciences of religious leaders and government officials who are uncomfortable signing the state’s current marriage certificates because both same- and opposite-sex couples have a legal right to get married.
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Leatherwood’s bill, SB562/HB233, would allow a man and a woman to go to a county clerk and simply declare that they’re in a “common law marriage.” The marriage would then be legally recognized without needing the signature of a religious figure acting as an authorized agent of the state. The county clerk would then sign off on the marriage and file the declaration, knowing that it’s one specifically defined as a union between a man and a woman.
“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,” Leatherwood said in a recent hearing in front of the state legislature’s Children and Family Affairs subcommittee.
The bill would also require the state’s attorney general to defend any local leader or the state if they decided to deny a marriage license to a same-sex couple.
The local news station WZTV noted that the bill has arisen less than one month after a federal judge ruled that former Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis – a Christian who denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2015 because she said same-sex marriage violated her religion – violated the constitutional rights of same-sex couples by denying the licenses.
But while Leatherwood’s bill would help protect state clerks who follow in Davis’ footprints, his bill also eliminates any age requirements for these new types of marriages. For example, a 45-year-old man could declare a marriage to a 13-year-old girl, and the law would prevent county clerks from denying the couple a license. This, opponents say, could help cover up child sex abuse.
If this sounds far-fetched, it’s not. In fact, child marriages are legal in 44 U.S. states, and 20 states don’t require any minimum age for marriage with a parental or judicial waiver.
“Approximately 248,000 children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010,” Equality Now notes. “The vast majority were girls wed to adult men, many much older.”
Leatherwood said he assumes that people interpreting the law would ensure that minors aren’t able to marry. But he also acknowledged that the bill’s language could be interpreted differently by courts. It’s unclear why his bill doesn’t have an age requirement.
“I don’t think any normal person thinks we shouldn’t have an age requirement for marriage,” Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart told WKRN. “[The law] should not be there as a ‘Get out of jail free card’ for committing statutory rape. I mean it’s completely ridiculous, so that’s another reason why this terrible bill should be eliminated.”