The first lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s new law defining terms by their ‘natural meaning’ has been filed, just four days after the governor signed off on the measure.
The law assigns "natural and ordinary meaning" to terms in state law and was signed by Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday.
At 8:53 a.m. Monday, four same-sex couples filed a lawsuit in Davidson County Chancery Court naming Haslam, Tennessee Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner and the Tennessee Department of Health as defendants.
Each of the four lesbian couples have conceived a child using a sperm donor, according to their filing. Their case notes that, when a man and woman have a child with donated sperm, the husband is automatically given legal rights to the child. They argue Tennessee's new law does not guarantee them the same rights.
Lawyer Julia Tate-Keith filed the lawsuit and said after the bill was signed last week the couples were left with no choice but to seek protection from the court.
“Because the legislature has shown that they are not interested in protecting these families and children, these couples have no choice but to ask the courts to protect them,” Tate-Keith said.
The couples' children are due later this year.
They say the new law violates equal rights and due process protections entrenched in the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions.
“The Petitioners seek the same protection under the law that husbands conceiving with donated sperm are afforded by Tennessee statutes,” their filing reads.
The women are asking Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle to issue an order setting precedent that any spouse of a pregnant woman is a legal parent.
“We only want a declaration that the non-biological mothers are parents too,” Tate-Keith said.
Haslam's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.
The law was hotly debated. Tennessee state Sen. John Stevens said it was to force judges to side more closely with a dissenting opinion in the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
LGBT advocacy groups say the law is a way to limit rights of same-sex couples, particularly when it comes to parenting.
The measure was approved 23-6 in the Tennessee Senate, and the House passed it 70-23, both near party-line votes.
During the bill’s life in the legislature, State Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued an opinion saying the law might go against the legislature’s previously established intent that gender-specific terms like “man” to be interpreted to include, in some cases, the term “woman” as well.
Slatery’s opinion also suggested that state law could conflict with the 2015 Supreme Court decision that gave equal marriage rights to same-sex couples.
Lawmakers generally avoided addressing the LGBT issues highlighted by opponents when defending the legislation, using examples like “book,” “statue,” “awful” and “agriculture” that have either no definition in state code or have definitions that have been updated several times to reflect changes or contemporary meanings.
In a detailed statement after signing the bill, Haslam said he doesn’t “believe the legislation accomplishes anything that isn’t already relied upon by the courts, even after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015.”
“The language of this bill is for a general definitions section of the Tennessee code, which defines ‘road’ and ‘sheriff,’ among other common terms,” he said in the statement. “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.”
Reach Stacey Barchenger at 615-726-8968 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sbarchenger. Reach Jake Lowary at 931-237-1583 or on Twitter @JakeLowary.
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