NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee Republican lawmaker's push to create a new marriage contract specifically designed to exclude same-sex couples is dead for this year's annual legislative session amid concerns from both Republicans and Democrats.
Rep. Tom Leatherwood moved the legislation to summer study with the vote of a House committee Wednesday, effectively killing it during the lawmaking session that is expected to conclude in the upcoming weeks. Critics decried the bill as an effort to circumvent the Supreme Court's 2015 ruling legalizing gay marriage, arguing it could have led to costly legal battles.
The bill also gained national attention because it initially failed to include a minimum age — an omission that has opened the door to widespread mockery. Some worry the move helped reinforce stereotypes regarding Tennessee as backward.
The bill's Republican sponsors downplayed concerns that the age omission would have resulted in a wave of child marriages, but they wound up introducing an amendment that would incorporate an age requirement of 18 or older. Supporters argued the measure was needed to give religious officials, couples and others opposed to gay marriage an option that wouldn't conflict with their beliefs.
"There are still a lot of sincere concerns about this bill, as well as a lot of misinformation about this bill," Leatherwood told the committee.
The legislation would have allowed opposite-sex couples to fill out marriage "contracts" based on common law marriage principles, saying the contract would only apply to "one man and one woman." Typically, common law marriage refers to the legal protections of marriage given to couples who live together as a married couple, but who haven't gotten a state marriage license.
Just eight states allow common law marriages, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and Tennessee isn't one of them. It's a practice that in America has dated back to Colonial times when it was sometimes difficult to find a preacher to solemnize a marriage.
The proposal brought up a host of concerns.
Last week, Republican Rep. Johnny Garrett, who is an attorney, told fellow lawmakers that because couples wouldn't have to file the contract with the state, couples would likely be unable to claim benefits and be denied rights typically given to married couples. He also pointed out that there's nothing prohibiting individuals from entering into multiple contracts, warning that lawmakers could be legalizing polygamy.
Leatherwood amended the bill Wednesday to make filing the contracts a requirement, not an option. However, it still didn't quell worries about the proposal.
"I know I expressed some concerns last week," Garrett said. "Those concerns are still there."
Additionally, Republican Senate Speaker Randy McNally told reporters last week that he wouldn't support the legislation due to the lingering constitutional problems.