Same sex child custody case inspires ‘natural and ordinary’ legislation

Citing a same-sex child custody case, two Republican state legislators propose a bill to clarify laws involving use of the words “mother,” “father,” “husband” and “wife.”

The sponsors, Sen. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma and Rep. John Ragan of Oak Ridge, tell The Tennessean that SB30  is necessary to save the state money and time in courts where the words are legally ambiguous. The bill declares the four words should be “given their natural and ordinary meaning” based on “biological distinctions between women and men.”

The bill comes following a civil court case in Knoxville where gender roles in state law became an issue for two same-sex parents trying to determine child custody.

But civil rights groups immediately flagged the bill as one that could be harmful to LGBT people, an attempt to subvert the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage, and say it could have a vast impact on all Tennesseans.

If the bill passes, the definition would apply any time those four words come up in Tennessee law. For example: Husband appears more than 50 times, according to a search performed by The Tennessean, in laws ranging from marriage and divorce to taxes and timeshares.

…”They’re trying to tortuously redefine everything,” Bowling said, referring to judges trying to ascertain the definition of mother and father as it applies to same-sex couples.

In June, a judge in Knox County ruled that a woman, whose wife gave birth to a child via artificial insemination, did not have parental rights to the child because she did not meet the legal definition of a husband. When a lawyer argued the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling allowing same-sex marriage changed those definitions, the judge said his hands were tied to interpret the law as-written.

…”Rights are something that God gives you, the law can’t give you that,” Bowling said. “What this does is clearly define words. We are a nation of laws. Laws are made up of words and words have clear understanding — clear meaning.”

But those in the LGBT community are worried about the proposal, according to Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, an LGBT advocacy group.

“For our community, it makes it clear they want to shut us out,” he said. He worries the bill could limit rights of same-sex couples to adopt and restrict other rights.

“The unintended consequences could be great because of the number of times the word comes up in the code,” he said.

Leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee called on the sponsors to consider more inclusive terms and update paperwork for marriages and adoptions to include those terms. Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said it’s time for Tennessee lawmakers to recognize that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed same-sex couples to marry, and those couples are now raising families.

…”What the legislature should in fact do is go through the statutes and everywhere it says husband and wife change it to spouse, and everywhere it says mother and father change it parent. That would be a very positive, forward thinking initiative that I would hope the members of our legislature would want to do, instead of debating a mean spirited, clearly unnecessary and confusing bill.”

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