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House committee delivers blow to underage marriage bill

Xavier Smith • Mar 8, 2018 at 5:11 PM

The Tennessee House Civil Justice Subcommittee delivered a major blow Wednesday to legislation aimed at underage marriage in Tennessee, as it sent the bill to summer study, effectively killing the measure.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, and Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Old Hickory, would ban anyone younger than 18 from receiving a marriage license in the state.

House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, led the push to send the legislation to summer study because of pending litigation. Casada said the litigation is a lawsuit by former senator David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, to counter the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in 2015.

“There’s a court case that’s pending that’s not related to this marriage of minors, but it’s a court case that our actions could be interpreted to support this case that we’d like to win a state,” Casada said.

“Under laws that we passed, no minor can enter into any contract, except the most solemn contract we have – the contract of marriage,” Yarbo said during Monday’s Senate session.

Under current law, county clerks can issue marriage licenses to 16 year olds and younger as long as a county mayor or judge agrees to the marriage.

Yarbro said the belief that most of those marriages happen between two high-school-aged people who simply want to get a start on their future is not accurate.

“The truth is that that’s not what this law does in Tennessee. More than 85 percent of the time this statute is used in Tennessee, it is an underage girl being married to an adult man,” he said.

Under Yarbro’s bill, there would be no exceptions for underage marriage.

“I think it’s time for us to revisit whether we should be letting parents make this most important decision in someone’s life, at least for me, on behalf of their children,” he said.

Yarbro said the bill would not outlaw underage people from holding marriage ceremonies.

 “There’s nothing about this bill that stops two 17 year olds from going into church swearing before their family, before their god, before their town that they’re committing their lives to one another,” Yarbro said. “All this bill would do to that couple would require them to wait until 18 to sign the paper instead of doing it five minutes after.”

Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, criticized the bill. He said it didn’t allow any exceptions, including for consenting 17 year olds or active military personnel.

“I believe the sponsor’s trying to do something good. I don’t want to see child marriages. I don’t want to see somebody 14 and the examples you gave,” said Pody, who noted if the law existed just more than 44 years ago, he would not have been allowed to marry his wife.

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