Tom Leatherwood, a Republican from Shelby County who represents the town of Arlington, Tennessee is facing heavy criticism for sponsoring Tennessee House Bill 233. The bill partially redefines marriage, removing minimum age requirements for straight couples only.
The bill, which passed the Tennessee House’s Children and Family Affairs subcommittee on April 4 and is currently being debated in the House Civil Justice Committee, would also empower Tennessee's attorney general to defend local and state authorities in the event they choose to deny a marriage license to a same-sex couple.
Leatherwood claims the bill is designed to “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.” He notes that there is no "explicit age limit” mentioned in the bill.
You can hear what Leatherwood said in the video below.
Critics of the legislation—which would establish common law marriages in the state between “one man and one woman"—say it poses a threat to marriage equality in the state, which has been legal since the landmark 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.
Others contend the legislation would pave the way to child marriage and child sexual abuse. Leatherwood—responding to concerns from lawmakers—said he thinks the bill "would be construed that minors would not be able to enter into this," a claim that prompted onlookers to suggest the legislation would inspire a 14th Amendment court challenge.
When a lawmaker questioned whether the legislature is "going to take the assumption" the bill "will not include minors," Leatherwood replied there is always “a bit of an assumption” on bills “because we never know what court will say what on anything.”
Many have criticized the legislation and taken Leatherwood to task for his remarks
The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) defines child marriage as any marriage where at least one of the parties is under 18 years of age.
The agency notes forced marriage is a marriage "in which one and/or both parties have not personally expressed their full and free consent to the union."
If the bill exits the committee, it is likely to pass the Republican-dominated Tennessee House.