Marriage bill creating path around same-sex unions causes ruckus in House committee 

By: - April 7, 2022 7:00 am
Screenshot of Rep. Tom Leatherwood, R-Arlington, in Wednesday's House Civil Justice Committee.

Screenshot of Rep. Tom Leatherwood, R-Arlington, in Wednesday’s House Civil Justice Committee.

Lawmakers battled Wednesday over legislation creating a new form of marriage in Tennessee, one that some said could cause financial confusion among families, scrap same-sex marriages and allow older men to marry young girls.

The House Civil Justice Committee deferred House Bill 233 until April 13 after lengthy debate. But the Senate version of the measure, SB562 by Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, is set for consideration on the Senate floor Thursday morning.

Rep. Tom Leatherwood, R-Arlington, said Wednesday he’s sponsoring the bill in an effort to give ministers with conscientious objections to performing same-sex marriages another option, one that would be allowed for a union of a man and woman only. 

Critics have said it undermines same-sex marriages, which have been legal since a landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. But Leatherwood said Wednesday his bill would not change state law and stop gay couples from getting married. He also said he opposes child marriages.

Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, is sponsoring a bill in the Tennessee Senate that would allow older men to marry young girls. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, is sponsoring a bill in the Tennessee Senate that would allow older men to marry young girls. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“(Some ministers) wanted an alternative form that was respectful of their beliefs,” he said.

The committee tacked an amendment onto the bill that would set an age requirement of 18 for marriages.

Yet Leatherwood ran into opposition from fellow Republicans, including Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, who argued that the measure could create several damaging ramifications dealing with everything from state licenses to bigamy and marriages between older men and underage girls. 

Garrett pointed out that as an attorney, he is licensed by the state to practice and to have attorney-client privilege. Yet Leatherwood’s bill would enable people to get married without a state license, averting certain legal protections in which the state wouldn’t recognize the marriage, affecting matters such as wills and probate court cases, insurance and retirement pensions.

“You’re gonna have a situation where the parties are gonna say, ‘You weren’t married to my mama. You weren’t married to my daddy,’” Garrett said.

Therefore, a survivor of this new type of marriage, carrying only a certificate, could be cut out of an inheritance. 

Insurance companies might not pay a survivor in a wrongful death action stemming from a DUI case or other incident, he said. 

Further, some people could marry more than one person because they wouldn’t have to file a marriage license with the state, he said.

“We’re going to legalize bigamy in this state,” Garrett said.

The most “troublesome” part of the bill, though, deals with older men trying to marry underage girls. Garrett noted he has a 15-year-old daughter.

“What if there’s some man out there that wants to take my daughter and hold her out as his wife when there’s nothing in this state to hold accountability to what that relationship is because that relationship is not recognized under current law,” Garrett said.

Leatherwood told Garrett they would have to disagree, and later he told reporters the measure is designed mainly to give ministers another path for conducting wedding ceremonies if they object to same-sex marriages.

We're going to legalize bigamy in this state.

– Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodletstville

“It changes nothing currently in state law, so it would not impact gay marriage one way or the other,” Leatherwood said.

The legislation, however, specifically states that these marriages would be between one man and one woman and would create a marriage certificate reflecting that.

Leatherwood contends the bill would not have allowed minors to get married, and he noted an amendment he added Wednesday would require both parties to reach the age of 18.

State Rep. Torrey Harris, however, said he discussed the measure with David Fowler, former state senator and director of Family Action Council of Tennessee, who pushed the legislation as part of an effort to take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. Harris also said he was told an age requirement was left out of the bill because Fowler felt that “under God’s law,” marriage should be up to people, not based on age.

“(The message) it sends is our children’s safety doesn’t matter, that our elders can be taken advantage of by just a signature on a piece of paper, that all their property can get taken away from them, because under common law in Tennessee it would look like they gave away their rights,” said Harris, D-Memphis. 

Harris contends the bill remains alive only because it deals with “social matters,” rather than nuts-and-bolts type of legislation such as education and jobs.

“It’s really divided a lot of us,” Harris said, adding it is pitting Democrats against moderate and conservative Republicans in the Legislature.

The bill has 20 co-sponsors in the House and three in the Senate.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.