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Tenn. AG: Bill Could Conflict with Gay Marriage Ruling, State Law

by Jonathan Mattise
Friday Apr 21, 2017

A state attorney general opinion says legislation requiring use of the "natural and ordinary meaning" of undefined words in Tennessee code could, in some cases, conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling and state law about interpreting gender-specific words as inclusive.

However, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery's opinion says that a judge wouldn't necessarily use literal meanings of gender-specific words, including "husband," ''wife," ''father" and "mother."

Instead, a judge would likely side with a state law requiring gender-inclusive interpretations, unless lawmakers made it clear in the bill that they wanted gender-specific interpretations of those words, the opinion states.

The bill by Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, and Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, passed the House last month in a 70-23 vote. It could come up for a Senate vote next week.

The legislation has drawn an outcry from LGBT rights groups. Tennessee Equality Project contends that the bill could undermine marriages of gay and lesbian couples and nullify a transgender person's identity.

"This is an example of something that could definitely cause judicial confusion," said Chris Sanders, Tennessee Equality Project executive director. "Or, if there is a judge who simply doesn't like our community, it could be used as a pretext to temporarily deny someone rights."

Stevens said the legislation codifies existing case law, and aims to "reaffirm our legislative prerogative." He said he interprets the attorney general's opinion to say the bill would be constitutional because the gender-inclusive definitions in state law would take precedence.

"We are the branch that represents the people," Stevens said in a committee hearing this week. "It makes clear that we define how words are to be read."

David Fowler, an advocate of the bill who heads the socially conservative Family Action Council of Tennessee, questioned in a blog post why a statute governing the relationship between a "husband" and "wife" would be unconstitutional.

Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, requested the attorney general opinion.

Separately, a bill that would specifically list "husband," ''wife," ''mother," and "father" as words to be interpreted by their natural and ordinary meaning and based on the biological distinctions between men and women has not been considered this session.

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