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By JONATHAN MATTISE
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Four married lesbian couples expecting children through artificial insemination filed a lawsuit Monday over concerns that a new Tennessee statute requiring use of the “natural and ordinary meaning” of words in state law could strip them of their rights as parents.
Less than a week after Gov. Bill Haslam signed the legislation, the couples sued the Republican governor, the state of Tennessee and the state Department of Health and its commissioner, John Dreyzehner, in Davidson County Chancery Court.
After signing the measure into law Friday, Haslam said it doesn’t change the fact that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling makes same-sex marriage the law of the land.
Gay rights groups have contended that the law offers a sneaky way to deny same-sex couples the legal rights and protections granted to a “husband,” a “wife,” a “father” or “mother.”
In the lawsuit, the couples say they fear the law will be used to interpret gender-specific words literally so one parent won’t be recognized.
If the woman who gave birth dies or becomes incapacitated, or the couple divorces, the lawsuit says this law could limit child custody, parental decision-making rights or other benefits for the partner who didn’t give birth.
Children may also be denied health insurance if the parent whose employment provides family coverage isn’t recognized as a legal parent, the lawsuit says. Only the legally recognized parent could accompany their child into a neonatal intensive care unit. And Social Security benefits wouldn’t be passed on to the child if the parent who isn’t legally recognizes dies, the lawsuit states.
The couples are asking a judge to interpret the law to mean 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.”
“It is a denial of the principles of equal protection in the United States Constitution and the Tennessee constitution to treat children conceived with donated sperm by opposite-sex married couples differently than children conceived with donated sperm by same-sex married couples,” the lawsuit said.
The law was pushed by the Family Action Council of Tennessee, which advocates for one-man, one-woman marriage.
A different bill that gained no traction explicitly cited “husband,” “wife,” `’mother,” and “father” as having natural and ordinary meanings based on the biological distinctions between men and women. The measure that ultimately passed avoids those specifics, and merely states that any word undefined in state law must be used according to its “natural and ordinary meaning.”
The measure also addresses questions raised in a same-sex child custody case in Knoxville, in which the Family Action Council tried to intervene on behalf of dozens of Republican state lawmakers, only to be rejected by the circuit court judge.
Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, insisted that his bill isn’t aimed at LBGT people. He said he simply wants undefined words to mean what they meant at the time lawmakers put them into the law.
Asked if the bill could infringe on same-sex couples’ ability to have kids or be married, Stevens said he has “no idea.”
Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, last week joined LGBT advocacy groups in calling for Haslam’s veto.
The legislation passed despite reservations by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery that it potentially conflicts with Obergefell v. Hodges in some instances, as well as a state law that requires gender-specific words to be interpreted as inclusive.
Slatery’s opinion predicted that judges would side with the gender-inclusive interpretation when requirements clash. Slatery took the same position when he weighed in on the same-sex custody case, urging that judge to interpret “husband” and “wife” gender-neutrally, as “spouse.”
On Monday, Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said it is not appropriate to comment due to the pending litigation.