Tennessee governor signs ‘natural and ordinary meaning’ bill
Tennessee governor signs ‘natural and ordinary meaning’ bill

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam [official website] on Friday signed [press release] SB 1085 [text, PDF] into law which mandates that undefined laws be given their natural and ordinary meaning. Dubbed the “natural and ordinary meaning” law, it requires that “undefined words be given their natural and ordinary meaning, without forced or subtle construction that would limit or extend the meaning of the language, except when a contrary intention is clearly manifest.” Some rights groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign [advocacy website] have raised concerns [HRC report] that this new law could create conflicts with LGBT protections and gay marriage provisions. In response to these concerns, Haslam stated:

Using a word’s ordinary meaning is a well-established principle of statutory construction. While I understand the concerns raised about this bill, the Obergefell decision is the law of the land, and this legislation does not change a principle relied upon by the courts for more than a century, mitigating the substantive impact of this legislation. Because of that I have signed HB 1111/SB 1085 into law.

The concept of giving laws their “natural and ordinary” meaning derives from the idea of “textualism,” of which the late Justice Antonin Scalia was an ardent advocate. More than en years ago, Scalia engaged in a rare televised debate [JURIST report] with the former president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] Nadine Strossen [official profile]. The two clashed on issues of constitutional interpretation and fundamental rights, with Scalia defending his “textualist” approach [backgrounder] to constitutional interpretation, which asks what constitutional language meant at the time it was adopted. Strossen had then responded: “I’m very distressed about your failure to find protections in the Constitution for the right of consenting individuals in their homes to decide what they see and read, and what type of sexual relations they have.” LGBT protections are still disputed globally and many rights groups have raised concerns about the future of LGBT rights within the US since the November elections. The US Supreme Court [official website] on Monday declined to hear [JURIST report] an appeal challenging California’s 2012 ban on “gay conversion” therapy. In April Nigerian prosecutors in Kaduna charged [JURIST report] 53 men for celebrating an LGBTQ wedding in violation of the state’s law against “unlawful assembly” and the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act. The same week Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] and other advocacy groups urged
[JURIST report] UN Secretary General António Guterres [official website] to investigate alleged abuse against LGBT people in Chechnya. A week earlier the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] dropped [JURIST report] a federal lawsuit against the state of North Carolina over a bill requiring transgender people to use the public bathroom associated with their birth gender.