Tennessee Governor Signs Bill Urging 'Natural Meaning' Of Marital Legal Terms

May 5, 2017

Tennessee's governor has signed a bill that is seen as a way to chip away at gay marriage rights in the state. The legislation orders courts to use the "natural and ordinary" definitions of legal terms like husband, wife, father and mother. Governor Bill Haslam says he didn't see a problem with the bill because, he argued, it doesn't do much.

"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," Haslam said in a written statement.

Haslam also notes that the bill passed with wide majorities, meaning the General Assembly could easily override him if he had chosen to veto.

LGBT groups have been lobbying for Haslam to reject the legislation, calling it the "LGBT erasure bill." Haslam says he understands their concerns. But ultimately, he says the Supreme Court decision permitting same-sex marriage will continue to be the law of the land, and courts could resolve any issues with terminology through other rules.

The ACLU of Tennessee says it won't back down on the issue. 

"LGBT Tennesseans and their families are due full recognition and equal treatment under the law, just like everybody else. ACLU-TN is ready to challenge any unconstitutional, discriminatory practices that occur as a result of this narrow-minded legislation," ACLU-TN executive director Hedy Weinburg said in a statement.

The legislation telling courts to use the natural and ordinary meaning of legal terms was inspired by a custody battle in Knoxville involving a lesbian couple. They were arguing over whether the term "father" applied to the parent who had not given birth to the child. But the judge in the case did what lawmakers would have wanted, saying his hands were tied in how to interpret the terms mother and father, leaving no parental rights to the woman who had not given birth.