A controversial Tennessee bill was enacted into law by Governor Bill Haslam this month. Critics claim that the legislation's intention is to restrict the parental rights of same-sex couples in the state. Just a few days after the implementation of the law, a civil complaint has been filed by four expecting lesbian couples that allege the new law does not guarantee them the same rights as heterosexual couples with children. The state Department of Health, it's commissioner, John Dreyzehner and Governor Haslam are all named as defendants in the suit.
The law, which was signed by the governor amid pushback from LGBT and civil liberty groups, entails that words and terms found in Tennessee law be interpreted by their “natural and ordinary meaning.” It particularly focuses on gender-specific words such as “husband,” “wife,” “mother” and “father,” which critics say contradicts the Supreme Court decision of Obergefell v. Hodges, allowing same-sex couples to legally wed and referencing gender terms as inclusive.
“Undefined words shall be given their natural and ordinary meaning,” the law, known as HB 1111 explicitly reads. “Without forced or subtle construction that would limit or extend the meaning of the language, except when a contrary intention is clearly manifest.” Objectors note that the law may seem vague and harmless at surface value, but its passing may be a sneaky and underhanded jab at same-sex couples.
The women who filed the suit are planning to have their children through artificial insemination. Under Tennessee law, the sperm donor - who has no genetic relationship to either of the women in their cases - is listed as the father under the new law. The mothers have filed the suit so they can be granted the same protections as a “father” would under the old law. Each couple is expecting their first child in the fall of this year.
LGBTQ advocacy groups have been especially vocal regarding the law's potentially discriminatory nature. Zeke Stokes, the Vice President of GLADD claims that the law is “dangerous” in regards to the future treatment of gay couples in Tennessee.
“By the stroke of a pen, Governor Haslam has not placed the future of the state's economy and the well-being of the LGBTQ community in jeopardy,” Stokes wrote in a statement. “HB 1111 has the potential to undermine marriages between LGBTQ couples, nullify a transgender person's true identity under law, and put LGBTQ families at risk. This sets a dangerous precedent for how the LGBTQ community is treated in Tennessee moving forward.
Gov. Haslam released a statement defending his decision, claiming that the new legislation doesn't accomplish any objective that “isn't already relied upon the courts.” He emphasized that the decision is a “well-established principle of statutory construction.”
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