Respect Equality

Tennessee bill would eliminate age requirements for marriages

Some worry the bill, which would establish common law marriages in the state between “one man and one woman,” endanger marriage equality in Tennessee.
People walk across the quiet Legislative Plaza in front of the State Capitol Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

Story at a glance

  • Lawmakers in Tennessee this week will vote on a bill that would establish common law marriages in the state but would not set a minimum age requirement. Some say it could open the door for child sex abuse.

  • LGBTQ+ advocates have said the bill could also pose a threat to marriage equality in the state by only including unions between “one man and one woman.”

  • The bill will be heard in the House Civil Justice Committee on Wednesday.

Tennessee lawmakers this week will vote on a bill seeking to establish common law marriages in the state between “one man and one woman.” Some worry the bill, which does not set an explicit age limit, would effectively legalize all-age marriages, while others have said they are concerned the bill would undermine the landmark Supreme Court ruling which legalized same-sex marriage.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Tom Leatherwood (R), has argued that the bill would merely create a new marriage option for Tennessee residents.

“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,” Leatherwood told his colleagues while debating the legislation, ABC-affiliate WKRN reported.

But Leatherwood did concede that the bill does not set a specific age requirement for marriage, according to WKRN. Under current Tennessee law, a person as young as 17 years old may be married with parental consent.


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Nearly 300,000 children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which defines a child marriage as any marriage where at least one party is under 18 years old. 

In the absence of federal law setting a minimum age for marriage, several states have outlawed child marriage, but the practice is still technically legal in 44 states, including Tennessee.

Leatherwood’s bill would also shield local officials like county clerks from legal action stemming from their decision to either issue or deny a marriage license.

Advocates for the LGBTQ+ community have said the bill could also endanger marriage equality in Tennessee because it only includes unions between “one man and one woman.” The Supreme Court in 2015 legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, though some state Constitutions still define marriage only as a union between a man and a woman.

If the Tennessee bill were passed, it would “surely” lead to 14th Amendment court challenges, the Tennessee Equality Project, which advocates for the equal rights of LGBTQ+ people in the state, has said.

The bill will be heard in the state House Civil Justice Committee on Wednesday.