Women Challenge Tennessee’s ‘Natural and Ordinary’ Law

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) – Four Tennessee lesbian couples sued Monday to challenge a law signed by Gov. Bill Haslam days earlier stipulating that undefined terms in state code be interpreted by their “natural and ordinary meaning,” which the women say targets same-sex parents.

Tennessee lawmakers passed House Bill 1111, also called Senate Bill 1085, last week, and it was signed by Haslam on Friday.

The legislation’s text states, in its entirety, that “undefined words shall be given their natural and ordinary meaning, without forced or subtle construction that would limit or extend the meaning of the language, except when a contrary intention is clearly manifest.”

Groups like the Tennessee Equality Project say the law has an anti-LGBT intent.

“We are very concerned for the judicial chaos this bill unleashes and its discriminatory impact on LGBT people in Tennessee,” the group said in a statement after the bill was signed into law.

On Monday, four same-sex couples – Charitey and Heather Mackenzie, Crystal Dawn and Terra Mears, Elizabeth and Heather Broadaway, and Kathrine and Emilie Guthrie – sued to challenge the new law’s potential impact on their unborn children.

Each couple has pregnancy due dates for later this year. They worry the new law could result in the parent who didn’t give birth being denied parental rights.

“A review of the legislative history as revealed in the recorded comments made on the floor of the Senate indicates that the legislative intent of this bill was to limit access to Tennessee’s statutory protection for children and families to opposite-sex couples and the children they conceive, excluding the children of same-sex couples from that protection, by passing a law which purports to control how statutes are to be construed,” the lawsuit states. “This quest of certain legislators to separate the right to marry from all the benefits of marriage has resulted in the enactment of the law which stands to cause substantial harm to petitioners.”

According to the Davidson County Chancery Court complaint, when an opposite-sex couple conceives a child using a sperm donation, the husband in that relationship is automatically deemed a legitimate parent, even if he has no genetic relationship to the child.

“The petitioners seek the same protection under the law that husbands conceiving with donated sperm are afforded by Tennessee statutes,” the complaint states.

The four couples seek a court order that they have “a fundamental interest in their parental relationship with the babies whom they will soon welcome into the world.”

They seek a hearing in the case before their babies are born, and are represented by Julia Tate-Keith in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

After signing the bill Friday, Gov. Haslam acknowledged the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, but said he doesn’t believe HB 1111 “accomplishes anything that isn’t already relied upon by the courts.”

“This legislation passed three-to-one in the House and nearly four-to-one in the Senate. Using a word’s ordinary meaning is a well-established principle of statutory construction,” the governor said. “While I understand the concerns raised about this bill, the Obergefell decision is the law of the land, and this legislation does not change a principle relied upon by the courts for more than a century, mitigating the substantive impact of this legislation. Because of that I have signed HB 1111/SB 1085 into law.”

The Human Rights Campaign called the new law “a measure that could undermine certain protections under state law for women and LGBTQ people in a shameful effort to challenge the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision on marriage equality.”

“Governor Haslam has chosen to put pure politics ahead of Tennessee’s women and LGBTQ people,” HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said in a statement. “This draconian measure will open the state up to many expensive legal challenges and divert state resources to defending an unnecessary, unconstitutional measure. The Governor should be ready to answer for the fallout signing this bill will cause.”

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