NASHVILLE - Legislation seeking to ban most underage marriages in Tennessee appears to have a clear path to the House floor after an amended version of the measure passed a House panel Wednesday afternoon.
Civil Justice Subcommittee members approved the bill that bars most people under age 18 from marrying. But it now includes a provision whereby a 17-year-old could go through a legal process with built-in protections overseen by a judge who ultimately can declare them legally an adult.
But a 17-year-old couldn't marry anyone more than three years older.
"I think we're on the right track," Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Nashville, the bill's sponsor, later told reporters. "I think everybody's on board and I will be very happy when this gets done. And I think we've taken an important step in protecting children of this state."
Jernigan and advocates say Tennessee's current law is not only disgraceful but dangerous, allowing children to marry adults sometimes decades older than they are in unions that especially leave underage girls vulnerable to exploitation, abuse or both without legal protections.
The bill was originally derailed in the panel last week after social conservative activist David Fowler, a former Signal Mountain senator who now heads the Family Action Council of Tennessee, objected. Fowler persuaded Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, to ship the bill off for summer study.
Fowler was worried that if lawmakers passed the bill into law, it could interfere with his current state court challenge before a Bradley County judge. And that, he fretted, could damage his lawsuit ultimately aimed at forcing the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its landmark 2015 ruling that made same-sex marriage legal.
At the same time, Casada worried the ban on anyone under age 18 being allowed to marry went too far. Some lawmakers have noted their parents were under age 18 when they were married. But as criticism mounted, Casada later reconsidered, and on Monday night he successfully asked the House to put the bill back on the subcommittee's agenda.
The panel, chaired by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, rescinded its action, then heard the bill Wednesday.
Casada initially caught Jernigan off guard, as well as causing confusion on Carter's panel, by proposing his own amendment dealing with 17-year-olds. It allowed parents alone to make the decision and did not include the provision requiring no more than three years of difference in age for anyone marrying someone 17 or older.
That resulted in a lengthy delay to give lawmakers time to work things out. A few hours later, Casada withdrew his amendment and the committee approved the bill with Jernigan's amendment attached.
"I was less nervous than I was confused," Jernigan later said, adding he thought Casada's amendment "fell a bit short." But he noted he thinks "all the pieces of the puzzle fell together, and now I think everybody is on the same page."
Carter, an attorney and former judge, voted for the bill. But earlier he questioned some bill proponents' claims that girls as young as age 10 have been married in Tennessee, saying Tennessee Department of Health officials could find no evidence of that.
The Ooltewah lawmaker also questioned Jernigan, asking whether it was his intent to impact any pending court litigation. Jernigan said it was not.
Fowler later said in an interview Jernigan's response to Carter's question resolved his concerns about the bill. The measure now goes to the full Civil Justice Committee. The original Senate version, which some Republican senators have voiced concerns over, awaits floor action.
Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, the Senate sponsor, said he still believes "the best thing to do would just be to draw a bright line at 18. But if we can enact something that limits things and ensures women have as many protections as possible, that still probably would be a step in the right direction."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.