The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, would ban anyone younger than 18 from receiving a marriage license in the state.
“Under laws that we passed, no minor can enter into any contract, except the most solemn contract we have – the contract of marriage,” Yarbo said.
Under current law, county clerks can issue marriage licenses to 16 year olds and younger as long as a county mayor or judge agrees to the marriage.
“Today, we still have child marriages, and we have more than almost any other state,” Yarbro said.
The lawmaker said the belief that most of those marriages happen between two high-school-aged people who simply want to get a start on their future is not accurate.
“The truth is that that’s not what this law does in Tennessee. More than 85 percent of the time this statute is used in Tennessee, it is an underage girl being married to an adult man,” he said.
Under Yarbro’s bill, there would be no exceptions for underage marriage.
“I think it’s time for us to revisit whether we should be letting parents make this most important decision in someone’s life, at least for me, on behalf of their children,” he said.
Yarbro said the bill would not outlaw underage people from holding marriage ceremonies.
“There’s nothing about this bill that stops two 17 year olds from going into church swearing before their family, before their god, before their town that they’re committing their lives to one another,” Yarbro said. “All this bill would do to that couple would require them to wait until 18 to sign the paper instead of doing it five minutes after.”
Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, criticized the bill. He said it didn’t allow any exceptions, including for consenting 17 year olds or active military personnel.
“I believe the sponsor’s trying to do something good. I don’t want to see child marriages. I don’t want to see somebody 14 and the examples you gave,” said Pody, who noted if the law existed just more than 44 years ago, he would not have been allowed to marry his wife.
“I don’t like the way this bill says there are not exceptions,” he said.
Yarbro decided to delay further discussion and a vote on the bill until a later date.