Tennessee Lawmakers Struggle To Decide: How Young Is Too Young To Marry?

Mar 27, 2018
Originally published on March 26, 2018 5:43 pm

Later this week, Tennessee lawmakers will again take up the question of how old people need to be to get married. It's an issue that has perplexed legislators during this year's session.

Advocates for a measure banning underage marriage point to a particular case: In 2000, a Kentucky woman took her 14-year-old daughter across state lines to marry her off to a 37-year-old.

In Tennessee, she gave a Knox County clerk a doctored birth certificate indicating the girl was 16 and married her to the woman's boyfriend. He'd been abusing the daughter for a year and half, and she was six months pregnant.

The story came to light when the girl eventually reached adulthood and filed for divorce. State Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, says such cases show the dangers of ever letting minors marry — even with parents' permission.

"You will find that mothers are forcing their daughters to marry these men," she says. "You will find mothers are pimping out their own children."

The so-called "child marriage bill" is framed as a way of keeping preteens from being forced into matrimony. But what has legislators divided is figuring out what to do about older teens.

Kyle supports banning all marriage under 18, no exceptions. That would make Tennessee the only state to restrict marriage to adults. But critics say forced marriages are extreme cases and a complete ban doesn't take into account circumstances like teen pregnancies or military service.

Every state sets a minimum age to marry, and Tennessee's current law on the matter is not atypical. It states that no one under 18 can tie the knot without parental permission, and those under 16 are not supposed to be able to marry at all. 

Many lawmakers say what's needed is not an outright ban on underage marriage, but some tweaks to prevent egregious age discrepancies. They've proposed amending Tennessee's marriage law so that minors could marry only people who are three years older or less. A few suggest also requiring a judge's permission.

The ban on marriage under 16 would remain.

Advocates for the child marriage ban say that still leaves unacceptable loopholes. They argue that, because minors face so many legal limitations and have restrictions on their rights, they have little recourse if they're caught in a bad marriage.

But in any event, it appears that marrying under age 18 is becoming an increasingly rare phenomenon. According to data compiled by Unchained At Last, a group that opposes underage marriage, only 37 minors married in Tennessee in 2014, the most recent year for which it has data.

That's down from more than 1,200 in 2000. And all of those Tennesseans who married as minors in 2014 were 17-year-olds, less than a year short of adulthood. They were all girls, and in each case, the man they married was 20 years old or younger.

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