NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Senate today took final action on a bill criticized by the LGBT community which seeks to require state courts use the "natural and ordinary meaning" of undefined words in state law.
Critics say the legislation could be interpreted by judges and used to deny rights to same-sex couples as well as transgender persons. At best, they contend, it will sow confusion in Tennessee courts.
Senators passed the bill, provisions of which Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery raised concerns about in a legal opinion, on a 23-6 vote and will soon go to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, was among Democrats and a few Republicans pressing the bill's sponsor, Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, about his intent.
"I just want to know, is this aimed at the LGBT community?" Kyle asked.facebook
Replied Stevens: "It absolutely is not."
A somewhat similar that hasn't passed used the same "natural and ordinary meaning" construction in the context of words like "husband," "wife," "father" and "mother."
An attorney, Stevens said it was important for words to be taken at their long-understood meaning, saying words "mean what they meant at the time we passed the bill."
But Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, also an attorney, said he believes it could be seen legally as "injurious."
"I appreciate the sponsor's recognition that a targeted bill would be of dubious constitutionality," Yarbro said.
But referring to the other bill that had first been offered up with the "father," "mother" definitions raised, Yarbro said that given the "origins" of such legislation, "I think it's near impossible to remove this bill from the context in which it was created."
He also raised constitutional issues of separation of power with the legislative branch directing the judicial branch, which interprets law, on what to do.
In his legal opinion earlier this month, Attorney General Slatery said the legislation could result in a conflict with Tennessee law with the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark same-sex marriage ruling when it comes to interpreting gender-specific words as inclusive.
But Slatery's opinion also states a judge would probably use gender-inclusive interpretations of such words.
Stevens, meanwhile, he argued that while his bill affects general law, individual statute language construction could supersede it.
After the bill passed, the Tennessee Equality Project quickly attacked the measure and warned of potential economic consequences for Tennessee.
Executive Director Chris Sanders called on Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to veto it.
"Tennessee Equality Project condemns Senate passage of SB1085, known as the sneaky LGBT Erasure bill, today," Sanders said in a statement. "The Attorney General noted potential conflicts with existing law in his recent opinion."
Those conflicts could cause judicial confusion and discrimination against LGBTQ people in Tennessee. The bill makes Tennessee a target for national economic boycotts."