TO Tennessee bill to exclude same-sex couples of a proposed legal marriage contract process sparked widespread backlash after the sponsors initially did not include a minimum age limit in the legislation, although the sponsors did introduce amendments to address the issue.
widespread public The protest spread Tuesday over child welfare concerns, with critics saying a path to marriage with no minimum age limits loosens the guardrails to protect minors from predatory behavior and abuse.
The bill would create an alternative path to marriage, allowing opposite-sex couples to enter marriage “contracts,” based on common law principles that have not yet been legally recognized in Tennessee. Contracts would not be available to same-sex couples.
The legislation’s sponsors now added amendments specifying that a man and woman seeking the contract must have “attained the age of majority,” which is 18 in Tennessee.
The Senate version of the bill has advanced to a full vote scheduled for Thursday. On Wednesday, a House committee deferred the bill to next week after the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Leatherwood, R-Arlington, faced tough questions about the bill.
Leatherwood said Wednesday that he had no intention of opening the hiring process to minors and that the age limit amendment would only strengthen the bill.
“This one turned the tables on people who introduced the bill in a way that I don’t think they anticipated,” said Regina Lambert Hillman, a University of Memphis law professor.
The proposed legislation would not eliminate or overwrite Tennessee’s marital age limits. Current Tennessee law sets a minimum age of marriage at 17 and prohibits a 17-year-old from marrying someone four or more years older.
Plus:Gov. Bill Haslam signs law banning marriage of minors under 17 in Tennessee
Bill Is a Backlash to Marriage Equality, Opponents Say
Hillman worked on the 2015 legal team for the Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark US Supreme Court decision that codified marriage equality nationwide. A case from Tennessee, Tanco v. Haslam, was consolidated in the Obergefell case.
Seven years after marriage equality’s victory, Hillman said it’s disappointing to see continued efforts to reverse progress made for LGBTQ rights.
“It’s this continuation of the backlash over the Obergefell decision,” Hillman said. “The sky did not fall. We have all kinds of married couples in our state who work, raise families, and pay taxes just like our straight counterparts.”
hillman sees HB 0233/SB 0562 as an attempt to “dilute” state marriage licenses, which are now available to any adult couple wishing to marry
“We have so many issues that could use the energy of our legislators,” Hillman said. “[These bills] they’re inviting litigation, they’re dangerous to LGBTQ youth, they’re divisive to our community.”
The Tennessee Family Action Council, a conservative advocacy organization led by former state Sen. David Fowler, sponsored the bill. In committee testimony this spring, Fowler said a separate marriage certificate is needed for people who have conscientious objections to same-sex marriage but need legal documentation of their union.
“As a minister, I cannot sign and affirm something that is contrary to my conscience,” Fowler said.
Tennessee marriage certificates do not require a minister’s signature, and opponents of the bill say it is a solution in search of a problem “that doesn’t exist.”
“No religious organization has been required to perform same-sex marriages. Those concerns are eased,” Hillman said. “I understand that change is difficult, and there are people who don’t like Obergefell’s decision. But I don’t have to agree with everyone who gets a marriage certificate as long as they meet the state requirements.”
Tennessee marriage bill initially wavered in committee
Leatherwood initially introduced the bill in a subcommittee in early March, which voted to send the bill to “summer study,” typically a death sentence for a bill.
“All this bill does is provide an alternative form of marriage for those pastors and others who have a conscientious objection to the current path to marriage in our law,” Leatherwood said.
Rep. Torrey Harris, D-Memphis, asked Leatherwood in March to introduce an amendment that would explicitly block minors from the process, which Leatherwood initially decided against doing.
On Wednesday, Harris said Leatherwood appealed to the subcommittee chairman in March to put the bill back up for a vote after sending it to summer study.
Harris, one of the first LGBTQ lawmakers elected to the General Assembly, said he opposes the bill but chose not to criticize the legislation on his ideology, instead focusing on his serious concerns about the lack of an age limit.
“There are so many moving parts and problems with this, and someone’s personal beliefs overshadow all the problems this bill could cause in the state of Tennessee,” Harris said.
Leatherwood on Wednesday did not directly answer why he chose not to introduce an amendment weeks ago, but said the explicit age limit would strengthen the legislation.
“Altering or addressing age at marriage was never the intent of this bill,” Leatherwood said. “I think it’s a better bill to put that in there.”
Contact Melissa Brown at [email protected]
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