A number of lesbian couples are suing the US state of Tennesee over a newly introduced law which says laws should be interpreted in a “natural and ordinary” way.
The law was enacted by Governor Bill Haslam last week and is feared to have the potential to challenge a Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.
Haslam, as well as the state itself and the state Department of Health and its commissioner were named in the lawsuit filed on Monday in Davidson County Chancery Court.
The four lesbian couples who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit are all expecting children conceived with artificial insemination.
According to LGBT advocates in Tennessee, the law’s “natural and ordinary meaning” clause could undermines same-sex couples in any statute including the words “husband, wife, mother and father”.
The bill states without explanation that the “meaning” should be “without forced or subtle construction that would limit or extend the meaning of the language.”
Governor Haslam has insisted that the law will not change how courts interpret legal precedent.
“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,” the Governor said in a statement.
Despite Haslam’s objections, the Family Action Council (a conservative Christian collective who campaigned for the law) said that the purpose of the bill would be to prevent judges from defining references to husband or wife as “spouse”.
The law could not only delegitimise gay and lesbian couples, but also transgender people.
The Human Rights Campaign explained that it may prevent same-sex parents both having their names on the birth certificate of their child, as well as prohibiting surrogacy and confidential communications in court proceedings.
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HB 1111 also has the potential to strip constitutional protections for women if it prevents state courts from reading the term “man” to include female and other gender-nonconforming identities.
Republican Senator John Stevens, who sponsored the bill, insisted that the purpose was to keep the meaning of undefined words when they were first put into law.
The Senator insisted that they had “no idea” if the law would infringe on LGBT rights.
Stevens said: “The language of this bill is for a general definitions section of the Tennessee code, which defines ‘road’ and ‘sheriff,’ among other common terms.
“For at least 150 years, courts including the Tennessee Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court have looked to a word’s natural and ordinary meaning when deciding cases,” the Senator added.
Vice president of programs for GLAAD, Zeke Stokes, said the LGBT community is now at “jeopardy”.
Stokes said: “By the stroke of a pen, Gov. Haslam has now placed the future of the state’s economy and the well-being of the LGBTQ community in jeopardy.
“(The law) has the potential to undermine marriages between LGBTQ couples, nullify a transgender person’s true identity under law, and put LGBTQ families at risk,” they added.
HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said the legislation was “opening a Pandora’s box of harmful consequences that could impact more than just the LGBTQ community.”