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Tennessee Marriage Bill

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"Tennessee Republicans introduce a bill that completely eliminates the age requirements for marriage —- leaving a loophole that will make it legal for anyone to marry a child —- and the criminal justice system would be unable to step in."

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On April 5 2022, an Imgur user shared a screenshot of a tweet from Occupy Democrats, which claimed that Tennessee Republicans had introduced a bill eliminating any age requirement for marriage:

Tennessee Marriage Bill
Tennessee Marriage Bill

No link or specific information was included alongside the tweet, which read:

BREAKING: Tennessee Republicans introduce a bill that completely eliminates the age requirements for marriage —- leaving a loophole that will make it legal for anyone to marry a child —- and the criminal justice system would be unable to step in. RT IF YOU ARE AGAINST THIS BILL!

A search for contemporaneous marriage-related bills in Tennessee returned a March 28 2022 WKRN.com article, “‘A get out of jail free card’: GOP bill would eliminate age requirements for marriages in Tennessee.” It began:

A proposal making its way through the Tennessee state legislature would establish a common-law marriage between “one man” and “one woman.”

Opponents of the bill (HB 233) say it would eliminate an age requirement, and in some instances, open the door for a coverup of child sex abuse.

Under current Tennessee law, you can get married as young as 17 with parental consent.

The bill’s sponsor, Tom Leatherwood (R-Arlington), said the law being considered would add a new marriage option for Tennesseans. “So, 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.”

But missing from the bill are age requirements, opening the door for possible child marriages, something the bill’s sponsor acknowledged during a Children and Family Affairs subcommittee meeting. “There is not an explicit age limit,” Leatherwood said.

WKRN.com provided a name — Tennessee House Bill 233 — and reported that the bill lacked an “explicit age limit.” It did not say the bill actively removed age requirements for marriage (currently 17 with parental consent in Tennessee.)

However, WKRN.com’s article identified the sponsor of the bill as Tennessee lawmaker Tom Leatherwood. It quoted Leatherwood as saying the bill did not contain an “age limit.”

Nearly all mentions of the bill in question relied almost entirely on WKRN’s reporting. Little additional information was available through other sources.

We located a tweeted statement from fellow Tennessee lawmaker Torrey Harris from March 23 2022. In the tweet, Harris stated that Leatherwood “just got a bill passed out of committee to create a Common Law marriage certificate” lacking an age requirement. Harris pledged to request an amendment to the bill:

Harris was one of a few lawmakers seen in a clip posted to Twitter by Tennessee political news account The Memphis Holler (@MemphisHoller) on March 27 2022. The clip, which showed lawmakers debating the bill (before it was passed), included Leatherwood’s confirmation that the bill lacked an age requirement for the “common law marriage certificate”:

In the end, it wasn’t so much that Tennessee Republicans introduced a bill removing an age requirement for marriage, but rather that HB 233 had no such requirement to begin with. The short bill was accessible on capitol.tn.gov [PDF], and it made no mention of age requirements in establishing a common law form of marriage — reading in part:

SECTION 4. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 16-10-101, is amended by adding the language “; provided, however, in cases involving the definition of common law marriage, where the people of Tennessee have spoken on the definition of marriage by referendum interpreting the Constitution of Tennessee, the circuit court’s jurisdiction shall be limited to those principles of common law consistent with the import of those votes by the people” following the language “upon another tribunal”.

An April 4 2022 Occupy Democrats tweet claimed that “Tennessee Republicans introduce[d] a bill that completely eliminate[d] the age requirements for marriage —- leaving a loophole that will make it legal for anyone to marry a child.” That claim was indirectly confirmed by the sponsor of the bill, Tennessee lawmaker Tom Leatherwood. Leatherwood himself said there was not an “explicit age limit” during a subcommittee meeting about the impact of the proposed legislation.