Bill banning 'child brides' is scuttled in Tennessee House after Fowler objects

The Tennessee House of Representatives meets on the opening day of the legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - A bill aimed at banning "child brides" in Tennessee is dead for the year after a former state senator and conservative activist asked it be delayed for fear it might interfere with his legal challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 2015 ruling on same-sex marriage.

Members of the Republican-led House Civil Justice Subcommittee moved the bill Wednesday to summer study, effectively killing for the year the legislation by Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Nashville, that seeks to make marriage illegal for anyone under the age of 18.

House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, later acknowledged he acted at the request of former state Sen. David Fowler, R-Signal Mountain, an attorney who is now head of the Family Action Council of Tennessee.

photo David Fowler, with the Constitutional Government Defense Fund, takes notes during a hearing before Judge Mike Pemberton in the courtroom at the Cleveland Municipal Building on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, in Cleveland, Tenn. Fowler, on behalf of Bradley County Commissioner Howard Thompson and Kinser Church of God Pastor Guinn Green, filed a lawsuit to prevent Bradley County from issuing marriage licenses in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriage.

Jernigan was furious over the action. It was one of two Democratic bills delayed at the request of Casada by the panel, chaired by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah. The other was an unrelated bill banning bump stocks, devices used to make semi-automatic rifles operate as if they are fully automatic. That was delayed until the panel's last meeting.

The debate over the marriage bill entered a hallway as Jernigan confronted Fowler for an explanation to his opposition to a bill intended to do away with a law that The Tennessean reported has resulted in at least three girls aged 10 getting married.

"So we're going to allow 13-year-olds to continue to marry because of the same-sex issue?" Jernigan asked of Fowler.

Said Fowler: "No, because there's a legal issue related to the whole issue of licensing."

Fowler maintained that the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which says the right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, doesn't address fundamental issues.

As a state senator, Fowler sponsored a change to the Tennessee Constitution barring same-sex marriages. It was approved by voters in 2006. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling invalidated the effect of his state constitutional amendment.

Fowler's legal theory is the Supreme Court held state laws that exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms as heterosexual couples are invalid. So, he said, are any marriages valid?

"How do you get a right to get a license under a law that's been invalid? Are license laws self excuting? No, they are not. Can the Supreme Court amend laws? No, they cannot."

A Middle Tennessee judge has already disagreed with Fowler's legal interpretation. But Fowler is involved in another case that is still pending before a Bradley County judge.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.