NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has signed legislation requiring words in Tennessee law to be interpreted as having their "natural and ordinary meaning." Gay rights groups called it a sneaky way of denying same-sex couples the legal rights and protections granted to a "husband," a "wife," a "father" or "mother."
No other state has a similar law, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates nationally for LGBT rights.
Haslam declared when he signed the bill on Friday that the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage is the law of the land, and this legislation does nothing to change that.
But the Family Action Council, which describes itself as defending conservative Christian values, made it clear while campaigning for the law that its purpose is to prevent judges from defining references to husband or wife, which appear throughout the Tennessee Code, as the gender-neutral "spouse."
Haslam sets a dangerous precedent by signing the law, which could delegitimize LGBT couples and transgender people in the state of Tennessee, said Zeke Stokes, vice president of programs for GLAAD.
"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," Stokes' statement said. "(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."
Nearly every elected Republican voted in favor, and nearly every Democrat against the measure. The influential Music Business Association, tweeting that it "values inclusion & celebrates diversity," urged a veto.
The law addresses questions raised in a child custody dispute between a divorcing lesbian couple in Knoxville. The Family Action Council tried to intervene in the case on behalf of 53 state lawmakers, and was told by the judge they had no right to get involved.
The Knox County judge ruled that because she did not meet the legal definition of "husband," the non-biological mother had no parental rights to their child born through artificial insemination.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. John Stevens of Huntingdon, said he has "no idea" if it could infringe on the marriage and family rights of same-sex couples. He said he simply wants undefined words to mean what they meant at the time lawmakers put them into the law.
The governor also described the law in the most innocuous terms.
"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."