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Four lesbian couples in Tennessee are suing over a law that critics say is an attempt to avoid recognizing the legal relationships between LGBTQ parents and their children, just days after Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed the measure into law.
The bill attempts to define terms in Tennessee law according to their “natural and ordinary” meaning. While it does not explicitly single out LGBTQ people for discrimination, the bill has largely been billed as an attempt to prevent judges from interpreting words with gender-specific meanings — such as “husband,” “wife,” “mother,” and “father” — to mean the same thing as a gender-neutral term like “spouse” or “parent.”
Currently, Tennessee is the only state with such a law, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Earlier this session, Tennessee lawmakers seriously considered passing a separate bill that would have attempted to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing marriage equality by refusing to acknowledge LGBTQ marriages and enforcing Tennessee’s ban on same-sex marriage, which still remains on the books. Some critics say the “natural and ordinary” definition bill tries to achieve the same aim, potentially preventing LGBTQ people from being legally recognized as parents of the children they are raising together, for example.
In response to the law’s passage, the four couples, each of whom have conceived a child using a sperm donor, filed suit, arguing that Tennessee’s “presumption of parentage” statute — where a man who is not the biological father of, but is married to the mother of a child is recognized as the child’s father for legal purposes — does not guarantee the same rights to non-biological lesbian mothers.
Lawyer Julia Tate-Keith filed the lawsuit in Davidson County Chancery Court on behalf of the couples, naming Haslam, Tennessee Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner and the Tennessee Department of Health as defendants, reports The Tennessean. Tate-Keith argues that the new law violates equal rights and due process protections in both the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions, and asks the court to issue an order declaring that any spouse, regardless of gender, of a pregnant women should be recognized as the legal parent of the child they raise together.
But Haslam insisted when he was signing the bill that people were reading too much into the bill, arguing that it does nothing to change or alter the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Stevens (R-Huntingdon), told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he has “no idea” if his bill would infringe on the marital or parental rights of same-sex couples, but simply wants undefined words in Tennessee’s code to mean what legislators understood them to mean when they were drafting a law.
Chris Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, notes that the Attorney General has pointed out several ambiguous terms and areas where applying “natural and ordinary” meaning to terms could cause problems for LGBTQ families. He and his organization have termed the bill the “LGBT Erasure Bill” because of its deliberate attempt to force judges and government officials to discount the existence of families headed by same-sex couples when interpreting or enforcing laws related to marriage, adoption, or child custody.
“With 95 counties, and elected judges that serve them all, there’s just too much risk,” says Sanders. “We think it’s better to err on the side of caution, and we hope this lawsuit is successful. We don’t really want to wait around to see what negative effects it might have.”