In May 2018, Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill into law which finally brings an end to child marriage in Tennessee. No longer can minors under the age of 17 get married thanks to this new law.
The new law is in place thanks to the efforts of a nonprofit organization called Unchained at Last, an advocacy organization with the mission of ending child marriage throughout the United States, and state legislators Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) and Rep. Darren Jernigan (D-Old Hickory) who sponsored the original bill, and Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston) and Rep. Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah), who sponsored the final version of the bill.
Closing the loopholes in TN law which allowed child marriages
The new law prohibits those under age 17 from getting married and anyone under age 18 from marrying anyone four or more years older than they are. This new law also gives married minors the rights and responsibilities of adulthood, except for statutory or Constitutional age requirements such as voting or buying alcohol. This provision allows married minors to pursue a divorce rather than wait until they attained the legal age of adulthood.
Child marriages were allowed only with parental consent, which in many cases amounted to parental coercion. Young girls were married off to older men that they did not know, and they were unable to file for divorce for years because they were not yet adults. On The Tennessean’s coverage of the story, there is a video clip of a woman named Donna Pollard who was married at age 16 to a 29-year-old man who had been her counselor and her abuser. The nonprofit Unchained at Last is an advocacy organization with the mission of ending child marriage throughout the United States.
According to Unchained, an estimated 248,000 children as young as 12 were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010. They call the practice of child marriage human rights abuse, and their website is full of the stories of young women for were forced to marry as children to men they did not know or love and to live lives of terror and abuse and shame with no legal avenue of escape.
Global Citizen reports that although the minimum age for marriage in Tennessee was technically set at the age of 18, loopholes in the law allows children to be married at any age with parental consent and the permission of a judge or mayor. Tennessee had the sixth highest rate of child marriage in the US in 2016, and more than 8,000 children were married in Tennessee over the last two decades. (Pew Research)
A story in the New York Times tells the story of an 11-year-old girl, who was married off to a 20-year-old member of her church who had raped her. Her mother forced her to marry the boy because she had become pregnant. The story in the Times recounts how a clerk in Tampa refused to approve a marriage license for an 11-year-old, the wedding party traveled to Pinellas County where the clerk issued a marriage license. Today, that little girl, Sherry Johnson, is campaigning for a new state law to end underage marriage.
We are thrilled that Tennessee now stands among the states which have outlawed this barbaric process.
At Shepherd and Associates, P.C., we offer comprehensive family law and divorce services for clients throughout East Tennessee. We invite you to call our Maryville office to schedule a consultation at 865-225-9655, or to complete our contact form now.