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Fact-checking claims about Tennessee proposed marriage bill and child age

An early version of a marriage bill in Tennessee allowed children of any age to marry. That part has been amended, but other controversial sections remain.

A proposed bill in Tennessee is drawing criticism from social media users across the country due to a couple of provisions related to marriage allegedly included in the bill. 

Some people suggested the bill proposed by a Republican lawmaker “creates a separate, privileged class of marriage for heterosexual couples” in Tennessee. Meanwhile, several others (here, here, and here) claimed the bill would allow children of any age to get married without parental consent. The backlash led to the hashtag #TennesseeRepublicans trending on Twitter. 

VERIFY looked into both claims. 

THE SOURCES 

THE QUESTION

Would a new bill make it legal for anyone to marry a child in Tennessee?

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, a new bill in Tennessee would not make it legal for anyone to marry a child, but an early version of the bill did omit an age requirement.  

WHAT WE FOUND

In the United States, there is no federal law in place that sets a minimum age requirement for marriage. Instead, states set their own guidelines, and currently, 20 U.S. states do not require a minimum age for marriage, according to human rights organization Equality Now

Under Tennessee law, children who are 17 years old can get married with parental consent, but children under the age of 17 cannot legally marry. In January 2022, Tennessee Republican state Rep. Tom Leatherwood proposed Tennessee House Bill 233 (HB 233) that would create a new “common law” marriage in the state. In an early version of the bill, the text left out any rules relating to age minimums for that common law marriage. 

According to legal expert Whitney Traylor, the age limits in Tennessee’s current marriage law would not automatically transfer to the new common law marriage stipulated in HB 233. Traylor explained the omission of the age requirement created a loophole that could potentially allow children to marry. 

On April 6, HB 233 and its companion bill in the Tennessee Senate, SB 562, were amended to reflect the updated age requirement. The amended bill now says that “one man and one woman” may file for a common law marriage if “both have attained the age of majority,” which is 18 years old in Tennessee. 

In an email, a Tennessee House GOP spokesperson told VERIFY that HB 233 “would not have ever allowed minors to marry.”

Leatherwood also told VERIFY in a statement that HB 233 “does not allow minors to get married.” 

THE QUESTION

Would a bill proposed in Tennessee create a separate class of marriage only for heterosexual couples? 

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, a bill proposed in Tennessee would create a separate class of marriage only for heterosexual couples. 

WHAT WE FOUND

If passed, House Bill 233 (HB 233) would create a new common law marriage in Tennessee. A common law marriage is a “legally recognized marriage between two people who have not purchased a marriage license or had their marriage solemnized by a ceremony,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The language used in HB 233, however, stipulates that this new common law union must be “between one man and one woman.” 

Leatherwood told VERIFY in a statement that HB 233 does not change Tennessee’s current marriage laws. Instead, he says this new common law option appeals to people with “deeply held religious convictions” and “conscientious objections” to the current law that allows same-sex couples to receive a marriage license in Tennessee. 

Legal expert Whitney Traylor told VERIFY if HB 233 were to be passed in Tennessee, it would not apply to same-sex couples. Traylor said that by including the “one man and one woman” clause in the bill, Republican lawmakers are trying to “get around the law that says same-sex marriage is lawful, and you have to recognize same-sex marriages, even from other states.” 

In 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the United States. In the landmark case, Obergefell v. Hodges, the court ruled that heterosexual and same-sex couples had equal rights to marriage in all 50 states under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court also said bans on same-sex marriages are unconstitutional. 

Although HB 233 would not ban same-sex marriages in Tennessee, Sarah Warbelow, who serves as the legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, told VERIFY that the exclusion of same-sex couples in this common law marriage could still lead to legal challenges in the future if passed. 

“The intent of the primary sponsor of the bill is to have this other mechanism by which people can marry that same-sex couples would be excluded from. That would make it ripe for a legal challenge because the Supreme Court in deciding Obergefell really made clear that same-sex couples were entitled all the same rights, benefits, obligations, and the institution of marriage itself. Coming up with an alternative way of letting people get married is still a problem under the Obergefell decision,” Warbelow explained. 

As of April 7, the bill is still working its way through the Tennessee Legislature. It will be heard by the House Civil Justice Committee on April 13 and presented in front of the full Senate on April 14. 

More from VERIFY: No, political ads on TV aren’t required to be factual

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