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Stop politicizing child marriage in Tennessee and ban it

Johnson City Press • Mar 15, 2018 at 8:15 AM

It should be a relief to Tennesseans that the General Assembly has revived a bill to end an antiquated aspect of state law permitting child marriages.

The bizarre loophole gives judges the option to grant marriage licenses with no minimum age — a provision Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Old Hickory, hopes to end.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, the Department of Health reported that in 2016 there were 42 grooms and 166 brides who were under age 18 at marriage. From 2012-2016, the state averaged 36 grooms and 183 brides who were minors.

Furthermore, Unchained At Last, an advocacy group working to outlaw child marriage across the U.S., found that more than 8,400 Tennessee minors were married in Tennessee between 2000 and 2014. Three brides were age 10 while one groom was 11 — the nation’s youngest on both counts — and all were married to adults, according to the group’s data.

In 2018, such a barbaric practice is unthinkable. Adolescents are too emotionally and physically immature to cope with the interpersonal pressures of marriage and sexuality, and they certainly have no place in the beds of adults.

Yet when Jernigan’s bill went before the House Civil Justice Subcommittee, legislators nixed it, acting on an email from from former lawmaker David Fowler, president of the conservative Family Action Council of Tennessee. Fowler claimed a child marriage ban could interfere with a lawsuit he is developing against the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

First, same-sex marriage is law, and hundreds of thousands of marriages have taken place since the Court’s ruling. Reversing it would bog down the state and the nation in a quagmire of legal challenges. Tennessee should just move on. Second, it’s unconscionable for lawmakers to hold the welfare of children hostage to political posturing.

Thankfully, public outrage prompted lawmakers to bring Jernigan’s bill back to the House subcommittee.

Tennessee has long suffered the decidedly unfair reputation of being a backward state — an insult unfortunately bolstered by traditionally low rankings in such key indicators as public health and education. Legislators have not helped things over the years with impositions on sex education, proposals to bar evolution instruction, the infamous “Don’t say gay” bill and other base-rallying measures that have captured national headlines.

Continuing to allow child marriage is the last thing this state needs. More importantly, it’s the last thing our children need. Lawmakers should fast-track Jernigan’s bill and make the ban the law of the land as soon as possible.

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