On Friday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a piece of legislation stating that "undefined words" in state code "shall be given their natural and ordinary meaning[s]" by officials tasked with interpreting the law. That may sound innocuous — but in fact, Tennessee's "natural and ordinary meaning" law is a sneaky attempt to deny rights to LGBTQ couples and parents.
The law is only half a page long, and due to its brevity, there's a lot of uncertainty about what exactly its practical effects will be. But many believe that the legislation could open the door for certain types of anti-LGBTQ discrimination — for instance, by restricting the custody rights of gay and trans people with children. According to the state's attorney general, the law could also chip away at same-sex marriage rights in the state, depending on how it's implemented
Supporters of the law deny that this is their intent. The Republican lawmaker who sponsored the bill in the state assembly told NBC News that the masure "has nothing to do with same sex marriage or gender" at all. And yet it's telling that the Family Action Council of Tennessee, an anti-LGBT organization in the state, strongly supported the bill, while national gay rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD opposed it.
New Tennessee law requires words to have 'natural and ordinary' meanings, so "husband" doesn't become "spouse." https://t.co/ZIhIzIPeSo— AP South U.S. Region (@APSouthRegion) May 5, 2017
“By the stroke of a pen, Gov. Haslam has now placed the future of the state’s economy and the well-being of the LGBTQ community in jeopardy,” GLAAD vice president Zeke Stokes said in a statement. "[The law] has the potential to undermine marriages between LGBTQ couples, nullify a transgender person’s true identity under law, and put LGBTQ families at risk.”
Gay rights groups aren't the only ones who think so. In April, the state's attorney general issued an opinion on the then-pending legislation, concluding that it might indeed restrict the rights of same-sex couples. Specifically, the law could pave the way for state laws that run contrary to Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized marriage equality nationwide.
"Statutes that are related to marriage or to the terms, conditions, benefits, or obligations of marriage could, in some instances, be in conflict with the holding in Obergefell if gender-specific words in those statutes were construed according to the proposed legislation," Attorney General Herbert Slatter, a Republican, wrote.
It's too soon to say exactly what impact this law will have on LGBTQ rights in Tennessee. But so far, there's good reason to suspect that it won't be a positive one.