Tennessee Must Let Adults Marry Children, Or Else The Gays Have Won
Singer Jerry Lee Lewis and his 13-year-old cousin/bride, who later accused him of domestic violence
Last week, the state of Kentucky stalled a bill that would prevent child marriage in their state. Why? Because "parents" felt they ought to have the right to allow their children to get married if they want. State law currently allows for children aged 16 or 17 to get married with their parents' permission, and for minors under the age of 16 to marry with the permission of a judge. The new bill would have made it so that the youngest age they could legally marry would be 17, with the permission of their parents and a judge, so long as the age difference were less than four years and there was no history of abuse between the two parties and the adult was not a sex offender.
This week, the state of Tennessee followed suit by killing an anti-child-marriage bill of its own. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, would have raised the marriage age to 18, and closed a loophole that allowed judges to approve marriage certificates for minors, with no minimum age requirement.
Yarbro and other supporters of the bill note that this "loophole" is used most often to marry young girls off to adult men, often men who have sexually abused or raped them and gotten them pregnant as a result.
"More than 85 percent of the 9,000 [child] marriages that have happened since 2000 are underage girls marrying adult men," Yarbo said in an interview with The Tennessean.
Many of the those now fighting for these bills are women like Sherry Johnson, who was forced to marry her rapist at the age of 11.
Last year, 42 men and 166 women under the age of 18 were married in the state of Tennessee.
Unchained At Last, a non-profit working to ban child marriage in the United States, says there have been at least three instances that they know of where the law in Tennessee has allowed a 10-year-old girl to marry an adult man.
While the law in Tennessee allows for minors to enter into marital contracts, with the permission of a judge, they are legally prohibited from entering into other kinds of contracts -- including contracts with lawyers. This means that while a 15-year-old can legally get married to a 50-year-old man, she cannot hire an attorney to divorce him, or to consult with her on getting an order of protection.
Now, one would think that this would not be a difficult bill for anyone to support, regardless of their political affiliation. If you're not old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes or a lottery ticket, you're not old enough to sign up for a lifetime commitment to another person. Hell, if you still need your parents to sign a permission slip to go to the zoo with your classmates, you are not ready for marriage -- even if they give their permission for you to do so. That much should be obvious.
But the reason the bill got killed was not so much because state legislators loved child marriage, but because they really hate gay people.
House Majority Leader Glen Casada (R-Franklin) sent the bill to summer study in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee -- a place where bills go to be reconsidered and rarely, if ever, re-emerge. Why? Because he was swayed by the pleas of a lawyer and former state senator who said that passing the bill could hurt his case to counter Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that made same-sex marriage the law of the land:
Casada cited an email he received from attorney and former state Sen. David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee.
Fowler argued that passing Jernigan's bill could interfere with a lawsuit he is mounting to counter the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing gay marriage.
Fowler's legal theory is that the Supreme Court's ruling essentially nullified all Tennessee marriage licences, as it required legal marriage to be opened up beyond just a man and a women.
Therefore, according to Fowler, if the state were to move forward with this logic in a legal argument against the ruling, modifying state marriage law could acknowledge its existence.
Jernigan questioned Fowler as to why this should affect his legislation, and Fowler responded, "Some people think the state should regulate marriage, and I do not."
Basically he's saying that if the state were to ban minors from getting married, that would be admitting that marriage even exists in Tennessee, which he is contending it does not. And they have to pretend it doesn't exist, because otherwise he won't be able to stop gay people from getting married. It appears to be the legal equivalent of a child putting their hands over their own eyes and declaring themselves invisible.
Now, I may not even be a simple country lawyer, or any kind of lawyer for that matter, but wouldn't issuing any marriage licenses at all, or granting any divorces, post-Obergefell, mean that the state already does not consider all marriages nullified?
Fowler is not just a lawyer though, he is also the president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, a Christian group that opposes same-sex marriages and no-fault divorce.
They love marriage a whole lot, and feel very important about its "sanctity." Which is why, I suppose, they think it is a thing children ought to be able to do. Just so long as they aren't marrying anyone of the same sex. Because that would be a sin, unlike a child being married off to an adult.
This is sad. It's sad that Tennessee can't get it together to realize that same-sex marriage is not going away, and it's sad that they're so desperate for any chance to make it go away that they would risk the welfare of children in order for a shot at it that probably won't happen anyway. They're sick, sick people.
Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Previously, she was a Senior Staff Writer at Death & Taxes, and Assistant Editor at The Frisky (RIP). Currently, she writes for Wonkette, Friendly Atheist, Quartz and other sites. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse