New Controversial Tennessee Law Bans Marrying Your First Cousin

A couple walks hand in hand down the strip in Gatlinburg, TN

A new bill has just passed in Tennessee banning first cousin marriages (iStockPhoto/AI altered)

​​​​A new bill banning first cousin marriages has passed in Tennessee but not all are in favor of the new law

We’ve heard the stories. Young kids grow up in a similar area. Begin dating in high school and fall in love. Then, for whatever reason, they take a DNA test and find out their collective family trees don’t branch quite as much as one would like. Sure, the folks in these scenarios are rarely first cousins. Normally first cousins are close enough to know each other or at least each other’s parents. However, it can happen. What happens next? It’s a bit of a sticky wicket depending on where you live. This year the Tennessee legislature took steps and passed a law to eliminate first cousins marrying sending a law to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed. 

For years, it’s been legal for first cousins to get married in Tennessee. This year, the legislature took up a bill and passed it outlawing marriage between first cousins in the state. 

a tennessee welcomes you road sign
Tennessee welcomes you, but don’t plan to marry a first cousin here (photo by AndreyKrav/iStockPhoto)

Arguments for first-cousin marriages

The bill gained some national attention when Republican Gino Bulso, Brentwood, somewhat jokingly argued against the bill in committee. He then, more seriously, opposed the bill on the state house floor. The bill itself – somewhat straightforwardly – prevents marriage between the lineal descendants of a grandparent. Previously the law outlawed marriage between the children of a grandparent. 

In committee, Bulso pointed to his Italian Immigrant grandparents who were first cousins who came from the old country in the 1920s to Ohio. They moved to Tennessee where they were married. Despite the anecdote, Bulso voted for the bill in committee.

Things got strange – or even stranger – on the house floor. Bulso – a social conservative who said the Supreme Court erred in allowing gay marriage – argued the government has no reason to ban first cousins of the same sex from getting married as there are no genetic issues involved. He also offered an amendment that would have allowed first cousins to get married if they consulted a genetic counselor, But that amendment failed to garner traction.

Sunsphere Knoxville TN
There are currently 17 states where it is still legal to marry your first cousin. Pictured: The Sunsphere in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee (khalid/stock.adobe.com)

If you frequent college football fan boards you’d know that a common insult for Tennesseans involves marrying relatives. However, there are 17 states – and the District of Columbia – where first cousins’ marriage is legal without reservation. And before you stereotype us Southerners, these states include:

  • Vermont
  • Rhode Island
  • New York
  • New Jersey
  • Connecticut
  • Hawaii
  • California
  • Massachusetts 

Bulso’s amendment about genetic counseling might seem strange. However, it is a requirement for first cousins in Maine to marry. Several other states require that the parties be of a certain age or sterile. North Carolina’s ban only occurs if the parties involved are double first cousins.  

Cemetery at Cades Cove Primitive Baptist
In small communities such as the Cades Cove area, marrying cousins was likely more common (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Is it common in Tennessee?

Well, it used to be more of a thing. Take for example people like Bulso’s grandparents who came to a place where it wasn’t verboten. Also, think about rural communities with a certain level of isolation. How do you think Tennessee got that reputation, after all? Take for example Cades Cove where at its height of population there were about 600 people split among a handful of families. Families in the Cove were prone to have large numbers of children. There are only so many conceivable combinations before things get really complicated from a genetic point of view. We wrote about the situation here.

Even today if you live around Maryville and your family is from back up in the mountains and you start dating another Maryville resident whose family has been in the area a long time, DNA tests early in the relationship might be a good thing. 

the john oliver cabin
The John Oliver Cabin in Cades Cove (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Then why is it so bad?

Well, from a genetic perspective, it’s a roll of the dice on some pretty scary stuff. Bulso – that guy again – tried arguing that the increased risk of birth defects wasn’t significant enough to merit changing the law. 

“There is an increased risk of birth defects when you’ve got first cousins marrying. It is in the range of 1.7% to 2.8%, according to the Journal of Genetic Counseling,” Bulso said. “So, there’s an additional risk, but it’s not as significant as some might otherwise be led to believe.” However, his fellow legislators found Bulso’s argument unpersuasive and voted the bill into law.

Though marriage between first cousins does have some historical tradition in Appalachia and the Volunteer State the practice is now against the law in Tennessee. While other states do allow the practice – or allow it with conditions – once the law goes into effect, Tennessee will be among the states that outlaw the ancient practice. 

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