Tennessee Republicans Push a Bill That Would Circumvent Marriage Age Limits

Republicans in Tennessee are pushing a bill through the GOP-controlled legislature that would establish an “alternative form of marriage,” creating a class of common-law marriage that would be limited to heterosexual people and circumvent age limits.

The bill, HB 233, would make it so that children of any age could be married. The bill’s main sponsor, Republican state Rep. Tom Leatherwood, told WKRN that the bill would create “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.” He has confirmed that “[t]here is not an explicit age limit.”

Only heterosexual people would be allowed to be married under the new class of marriage, which defines marriage as being between “one man” and “one woman.” It was likely filed as a homophobic response to a ruling against former Kentucky clerk Kim Davis last month, in which a federal judge found that Davis had violated couples’ constitutional rights when she refused to marry them because they were gay.

“I don’t think any normal person thinks we shouldn’t have an age requirement for marriage,” said Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart, adding that Republicans are essentially seeking to give people a free pass for “statutory rape.”

Lawmakers, along with gender-based violence and sexual assault survivor advocates, have raised concerns that eliminating an age limit for marriage would open up doors for children to be abused. In recent years, some states have been considering raising their age limit for marriage in order to prevent child abuse.

“The Sexual Assault Center does not believe the age of consent for marriage should be any younger than it already is,” the Sexual Assault Center of Middle Tennessee told WKRN. “It makes children more vulnerable to coercion and manipulation from predators, sexual and other.”

Research from 2021 found that nearly 300,000 children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018. Although the age of consent in most states is 18, children can be married as young as 16 with parental consent in many states — meaning that a child could potentially be coerced into marriage with their rapist. Only five states currently bar marriage for children.

Republicans across the country, including in Tennessee, have been passing bills specifically targeted at LGBTQ youths; advocates say that these bills would similarly lead to child abuse. GOP lawmakers in Tennessee have passed especially strict bills specifically targeting transgender children, banning them from participating in sports that align with their gender and barring school districts from freely teaching about sexual orientation or gender.

In Florida, Republicans passed a bill last year that would allow adults to inspect children’s genitals if they think that the child is transgender. The bill would leave children vulnerable to both discrimination and sexual abuse.