Child marriages: Tennessee lawmakers attempt to close ‘loophole’ permitting underage marriages

Zach Vance • Mar 12, 2018 at 11:33 PM

Two Democratic state lawmakers are hoping to close a “loophole” and completely prohibit child marriages in the state of Tennessee.

Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Old Hickory, and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, are championing the legislation, which would require each applicant for a marriage license to be at least 18 years old.

The loophole in state law currently permits “the judge of the probate, juvenile, circuit or chancery court, or county mayor” to authorize the county clerk to issue a marriage license to anyone under the age of 16.

With parental consent, teenagers 16 or 17 years old can also get married.

Republican lawmakers on the House Civil Justice Subcommittee initially killed the proposal last week in an effort to strengthen a conservative lawyer’s argument against the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.

According to the Tennessean, House Majority Leader Glen Casada, a member of the committee, decided to send the bill to summer study, where most bills go to die, after receiving an email from Family Action Council of Tennessee President David Fowler, a former state senator.

Fowler reportedly told Casada that modifying state marriage law would effectively acknowledge the existence of same-sex marriage in Tennessee.

Fowler plans to argue that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2015 case of Obergefell v. Hodges nullified all Tennessee marriage licenses by expanding the spectrum of legal marriage beyond a man and woman, the Tennessean reported.

After various media reports detailed the marriage loophole, Casada conferred with House Civil Justice Subcommittee Chairman and former judge Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, and decided to bring the bill back for reconsideration Tuesday at 3 p.m.

During a press conference in Nashville last week, Fraidy Reiss, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Unchained at Last, cited Tennessee Department of Health data that allegedly showed three instances where 10-year-old girls were married to men in their 30s in 2001.

Sarah Bosakowski, communications associate for Unchained, told the Johnson City Press that the state has since disputed the three marriages of 10-year-olds, citing errors in the data.

In 2016, 42 men and 166 women were under the age of 18 at the time of being married in Tennessee, according to the fiscal note attached to Jernigan and Yarbro’s bill. Between 2012 and 2016, there were an average of 36 grooms and 183 brides under 18 years old each year.

Similarly, two Memphis Democratic lawmakers, Rep. Raumesh Akbari and Sen. Reginald Tate, are sponsoring a bill to restrict marriages to people 16 years or older.

Another Memphis lawmaker, Rep. Joe Towns, Jr., will present two bills to the House State Government Committee related to slavery.

The first bill would prohibit prisoners or inmates from being restrained “in a manner that joins the inmate with one or more inmates.” The bill would apply to inmates or prisoners working inside or outside a jail, detention center or prison.

Townes is also attempting to amend the state constitution to remove “punishment for crime” as an exception to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude.

Section 33 of the Tennessee Constitution currently states that “slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, are forever prohibited in this state.”

Both of Townes’ measures will be heard at noon.

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