Haslam signs underage marriage bill

Xavier Smith • May 24, 2018 at 5:03 PM

Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law a bill that would tighten the state’s underage marriage laws and close loopholes some lawmakers said led to undesired consequences.

The original bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, sought to ban anyone younger than 18 years old from receiving a marriage license in the state.

“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 in March.

Previous state law allowed county clerks can issue marriage licenses to 16 year olds and younger as long as a county mayor or judge, as well as guardians, agreed to the marriage.

Yarbro said the belief that most of those marriages happened between two high-school-aged people who simply want to get a start on their future was 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 were no exceptions for underage marriage. Haslam signed an amended version of the bill that prohibits marriage for anyone under 17, and for anyone under 18 when the partner is four or more years older.

The law also grants the minors the rights, such as to hire an attorney, of adults when they marry, excluding constitutional age requirements such as voting and alcohol-related laws.

Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, criticized the bill in its original form due to the lack of exceptions, particularly for consenting 17 year olds and 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,” Pody said in March, noting if the law existed just more than 44 years ago, he would not have been allowed to marry his wife.

“I don’t like the way this bill says there are not exceptions,” he said.

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