Civil Rights

Suit claims Tennessee's new 'natural meaning' law could deny rights to same-sex couples

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Four pregnant women and their wives are challenging a new Tennessee law that requires words in state statutes to be interpreted with “natural and ordinary meaning.”

The suit (PDF), filed Monday in Nashville just days after Gov. Bill Haslam signed off on the law, claims the law’s required interpretation of words such as “mother” and “husband” would interfere with nonbiological parents’ rights, report the Tennessean, the Wall Street Journal Law Blog (sub. req.), Reuters, NBC News and Courthouse News Service.

State law says a child born as a result of artificial insemination, with the consent of a married woman’s husband, is deemed to be the legitimate child of the husband and wife. Tennessee courts have interpreted the law’s reference to “husband” to include the spouses of lesbians.

The plaintiffs fear the new law would change that interpretation and they are asking a court to give them the same protection given to male husbands.

Julia Tate-Keith, a lawyer based in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the four couples. The intent of the law, she said, “absolutely is about denying gay people equal protection under the law.”

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery analyzed the law last month, and found it would have little impact. Courts already determine legislative intent by looking at the natural and ordinary meaning of words in statutes, he said. He also pointed to an existing Tennessee statute that says gender-specific words should generally be construed as gender-inclusive.

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