Tennessee Republicans are moving forward with a bill that would eliminate age requirements for marriage in the state.
The bill, HB 233, is scheduled to be heard in the House Civil Justice Committee on Wednesday and would establish common-law marriage between "one man" and "one woman," but it does not include a minimum age requirement. Opponents of the bill said it could open up the possibility of child marriages. The current age for marriage in the state is 17 with parental consent, according to WKRN.
"So, all this bill does is give an alternative form of marriage for those pastors and other individuals who have a conscientious objection to the current pathway to marriage in our law," the bill's sponsor, Republican Representative Tom Leatherwood, was quoted by WKRN.
There is no federal legislation in the United States regarding the minimum age for marriage, and states are allowed to set their own parameters. Currently, child marriage is legal in 44 states and nearly 300,000 children were married between 2000 and 2018 across the country, according to United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Democratic Representative Mike Stewart, who is on the subcommittee that passed the bill, said since there is no explicit age limit on the legislation, it could open up the possibility of covering up child abuse, WKRN reported.
"It should not be there as it's basically a get out of jail free card for people who are basically committing statutory rape—I mean it's completely ridiculous, so that's another reason why this terrible bill should be eliminated," Steward said.
The U.N. defines child marriage as any marriage where at least one of the parties involved is under 18 years old. The organization says one in every five girls gets married before becoming an adult. At least 12 million girls get married every year, and more than 650 million women around the world today were married as children, according to the organization.
Frontline data shows girls are more likely to get married than boys while still minors. Between 2000 and 2015, almost 90 percent of children who got married were girls and most were 16 or 17 years old. Children as young as 12 have been granted marriage licenses in South Carolina, Alaska and Louisiana, while 13-year-olds have been married in 14 states.
In the U.S., 44 states legally allow child marriages while the Philippines banned the practice in December. Only six states have banned child marriage, including Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York.
Newsweek reached out to Leatherwood for comment but did not hear back by publication.
Update 04/05/22, 12:30 p.m. ET: This article was updated with additional information.