Four lesbian couples are suing the state of Tennessee over a bill signed into law last Thursday by Governor Bill Haslam that could be used to discriminate against same-sex couples.
The law says that the wording of all state laws should be read in their “natural and original meaning”—in effect, the law could be used against LGBTQ people by enforcing heterosexual and cisgender interpretations of the words “husband,” “wife,” “mother,” or “father”:
As used in this code, undefined words shall be given their natural and ordinary meaning, without forced or subtle construction that would limit or extend the meaning of the language, except when a contrary intention is clearly manifest.
The four couples suing the state filed their lawsuit on Monday in Davidson County Chancery Court in Nashville, calling for the law to be overturned and for same-sex parent’s rights to be clearly defined by the court. They say the law could endanger their parental rights and leave their children vulnerable if both parents are not guaranteed equal parental rights and the ability to take care of their children.
The eight women are Charitey and Heather Mackenzie, Crystal Dawn and Terra Mears, Elizabeth and Heather Broadaway, and Kathrine and Emilie Guthrie.
“Tennessee legislators have been trying to separate the right to marry from all the benefits of marriage. They want to render meaningless the fundamental right that the United States Supreme Court recognized,” Julie Tate-Keith, the women’s attorney, told Fusion.
One partner in each of the four couples is pregnant and expecting children later this year.
“These women just want their children to have the same legal protections that Tennessee guarantees to every other child. Why should these children be treated any differently?” Tate-Keith said.
The lawsuit calls for an interpretation of the law that clarifies that “the spouse (not just husband) of any married woman who gives birth in Tennessee is the legal parent of the child to whom she gives birth,” according to the Associated Press.
A group called the Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT), a conservative Christian group that also lobbied against same-sex marriage, championed the bill.
The group’s head, David Fowler, said the legislation was partly a reaction to a same-sex custody case in Knoxville, TN, last year in which a lesbian couple with a child were getting divorced. The woman who didn’t give birth to the child, Erica Witt, was told by Fourth Circuit Court Judge Greg McMillan that she had no parental rights after the divorce.
The judge based that decision on a Tennessee law from 1977 that explicitly gives a father in a heterosexual marriage parental rights when a child is born through artificial insemination. The law doesn’t include provisions for same-sex couples.
Dozens of Tennessee state lawmakers sought to weigh in on the case, filing a motion encouraging the judge to rule against Witt. For FACT, this latest legislation is intended to reinforce that women like Witt do not have parental rights.
“When we say husband, we mean a man. When we say father, we mean a man. This is an attempt to tell the court in cases like Knoxville and in future cases, when we use a word, we mean for it to mean what everybody thinks it means,” Fowler said in February.
FACT did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
A spokesperson from Governor Bill Haslam’s office told Fusion they are aware of the lawsuit but said “it is not appropriate to comment due to the pending litigation.”
After signing the bill, Haslam told reporters he didn’t really think it would change the way state laws were interpreted.
“The natural and ordinary definition that is part of that legislation is really what the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court has used those terms for years, actually, for centuries,” he said.
Fusion reached out to Erica Witt’s lawyers for an update on her case and will update when we hear back.