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Are Tennessee legislators mincing words?

Tennessee legislators are seeking to formalize the “natural and ordinary meaning” of words. It is legislation that has created controversy as lawmakers strive to find clarity in the vagaries of wordsmithing used in their bills.

The legislation, passed after an abbreviated debate, specifically focuses on the natural and ordinary meaning of gender terms in all legislation to clear up any vagaries. However, their emphasis seems to be on “husbands” being men, “wives” being women, and “spouses” being married couples of the opposite sex.

The state’s LGBT community alleges that the bill is a disguise to undermine the rights of same-sex parents and their legal relationships with their children.

Family Action Council Tennessee (FACT) head David Fowler, a supporter of the legislation, claims that enactment will ensure that courts accept what FACT considers the traditional definition of family. “Mother” and “father” will mean what “everybody thinks it means.”

The legislation coincides with an ongoing custody battle between Erica Witt and Sabrina Witt. After getting married in 2014, Sabrina was artificially inseminated and subsequently gave birth to a daughter.

At the time, Tennessee did not recognize same-sex marriage as legal and Erica’s name was missing on the baby’s birth certificate. To this day, the state still has not changed the law in spite the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate to recognize same-sex marriage.

In February of 2016, Sabrina Witt filed for divorce. In a strange bit of irony, her own attorney argued that the state’s 1977 artificial insemination law on parenting rights only applies to husbands because that is the exact term used in the bill. Taking the side of Tennessee legislators, he claims that the terminology is not interchangeable.

A Knox County judge sided with Sabrina Witt, ruling that Erica has no biological or contractual relationship with the child based on the state’s artificial insemination law. However, she could seek visitation, comparing her to a stepparent.

The case is under appeal. FACT and a sizeable majority of 71 legislators have filed a motion to intervene in the dispute, claiming that their “legislative power and process will be impeded, impaired, and/or nullified.”

The recent passage of HB 1111 would not have any effect on the outcome. The standing of politician’s to intervene in a court case is unclear.

Critics call it, in a word perhaps subject to interpretation, “untenable.”

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