Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a seemingly innocuous new law tonight, targeting the use of language in the state’s legal code. Specifically, the new law calls for words that aren’t covered under the state’s definitions of terms to be interpreted with their “natural and ordinary” meanings. And if you felt your “This is gonna be some bullshit” antenna prick up at the word “natural” in that last sentence, congratulations, because this is, indeed, going to be some bullshit.
Both Governor Haslam, and Republican Senator John Stevens, its sponsor, are describing the bill in the most neutral, “just having some fun with the dictionary” way possible, with Haslam pointing out that the section of legal definitions the law targets has all sorts of totally innocent words, like “road” and “sheriff,” inside it. What all this wacky language fun obscures is that the definitions don’t include words like “husband,” “wife,” “child,” or the non-gendered “spouse,” meaning that those words are now free to be interpreted in whatever ways police and judges feel are “natural.”
Here’s a tip: One good way to check whether a bill is, legally, “evil,” is to see who’s celebrating the thing when it gets signed into law. In this case, that would be the Family Action Council of Tennessee, who cheered the new law’s completely innocent, totally non-homophobic content. This is a big day for the group, especially since the previous version of the bill that they proposed—which explicitly spelled out that the words “husband,” “wife,” “mother,” and “father” be given their “natural and ordinary meanings”—got smacked down for not being sufficiently subtle in its intent.
LGBTQ groups, including GLAAD, have already called the bill out for its intent of making it harder for gay married couples to access the same legal protections as heterosexuals. Numerous people have put forward that the bill was a response to a recent legal case, in which a woman was denied partial custody of a child that her now ex-wife gave birth to through artificial insemination, because the woman had “no biological relationship with this child, has no contractual relationship with this child.”
Still, Haslam made it clear that signing this homophobic bill had nothing to do with homophobia, reassuring constituents that gay marriage was still the law of the land. (Here’s a second tip: That’s not the sort of reassurance you have to make when what you’re doing is on the up-and-up.)