Metro Weekly

Bill to Exclude Gay Couples From Legal Marriage Is Postponed

Initial version of bill lacked age restrictions, sparking a public backlash over the idea of inadvertently legalizing child marriage.

Wedding rings – Photo: Sandy Millar, via Unsplash.

A Tennessee bill aimed at creating a legal marriage alternative that would only be accessible by heterosexual couples will not advance this year due to public outcry over the bill’s original form.

Introduced by Rep. Tom Leatherwood (R-Arlington), the bill would have established a pathway for opposite-sex couples to enter marriage “contracts” based on common law principles that have not yet been legally recognized in Tennessee.

Supporters argue that the alternative pathway is necessary to protect the conscience rights of ministers and state officials who do not wish to sign marriage licenses that must be granted to same-sex couples following the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision in 2015.

“This bill was to say have your license, but do not deny our understanding of marriage or force ministers to choose between signing a document they disagree with or performing a marriage that has no legal effect,” former State Sen. David Fowler, now director of the conservative Family Action Council of Tennessee, told The Tennesseean

But supporters erred in introducing the bill, failing to include provisions imposing a specific minimum age requirement. As a result, Leatherwood and other supporters were criticized for placing minors at risk of grooming, sexual abuse, or underage marriages.

Proponents of the bill later introduced an amendment to the bill that required people entering these alternative contracts to have obtained the age of majority, which in Tennessee is 18 years old. But the backlash from the initial version of the bill, sans age limit, was so strong that it hampered lawmakers’ willingness to move forward with the measure.

Under tough questioning from his Republican colleagues last week, Leatherwood called for his bill to be sent to summer study, while also decrying the “misinformation” circulating about his bill. The move kills the bill for this legislative year, but allows lawmakers to revive the measure next year if they so choose. 

This isn’t the first time that social conservatives in the Volunteer State have proposed rolling back marriage equality, although this path is much less direct than past bills that explicitly refuse to recognize same-sex nuptials as legal.

In 2018, the Family Action Council of Tennessee successfully pressured Republican lawmakers into defeating a bill to outlaw child marriage, based on a rarely-used legal rationale that was being employed by the organization in an effort to a challenge the validity of all previously verified same-sex marriages in court. 

Another bill, which failed to pass last year, would have defined LGBTQ identity as a form of religion, thereby making it illegal for the state to recognize the solemnization of same-sex marriages under the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Regina Lambert Hillman, a University of Memphis law professor who worked on the legal team for the Tennessee portion of Obergefell case, told The Tennesseean that no minister, in Tennessee or elsewhere, has ever been forced to marry a same-sex couple — or any other couple — in violation of their personal religious beliefs.

Rather, the state is forced to recognize same-sex marriages as valid for tax purposes, inheritance rights, or the situations where martial benefits come into play.

Hillman previously argued that Leatherwood’s bill was an attempt to undermine same-sex marriages by allowing non-married heterosexual individuals to reap all the economic and social benefits of marriage without having to obtain a valid license.

“I understand change is difficult, and there are folks that don’t like the Obergefell decision,” Hillman said. “But I don’t have to agree with everyone who gets a marriage certificate as long as they meet the state requirements.”

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