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Tennessee, Alabama Write Discrimination Into Law

Bill Haslam and Kay Ivey
Bill Haslam and Kay Ivey

Tennessee's governor signs a bill requiring the "natural" definition of terms regarding marriage and gender, while Alabama says it's OK for adoption agencies to discriminate.

Two Southern governors, Bill Haslam of Tennessee and Kay Ivey of Alabama, signed anti-LGBT bills into law Thursday.

Haslam signed House Bill 1111, which requires that "undefined words" in Tennessee law "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," as the bill text reads.

LGBT activists say -- and its backers admit -- that the bill is aimed at defining terms regarding marriage and gender in a way that excludes LGBT people.

"The reason we [approved the bill] was simple," Haslam told the Knoxville News Sentinel. "The natural and ordinary definition that is part of that legislation is really what the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court has used those terms for years, actually, for centuries." Haslam had said he would base his decision on whether to sign or veto the bill on the will of legislators, and both the state House and Senate passed it by large margins.

Zeke Stokes, vice President of programs for GLAAD, issued a statement condemning the measure: "By the stroke of a pen, Governor Haslam has now placed the future of the state's economy and the well-being of the LGBTQ community in jeopardy. HB 1111 has the potential to undermine marriages between LGBTQ couples, nullify a transgender person's true identity under law, and put LGBTQ families at risk. This sets a dangerous precedent for how the LGBTQ community is treated in Tennessee moving forward."

Tennessee Equality Project executive director Chris Sanders told the News Sentinel the word "natural" was troublesome. "We know the way 'natural' is typically used in respect to our relationships," he said. "Our families aren't natural. So that is a concern, and with 95 counties and elected judges serving all of them, there's just huge potential for LGBT folks to get a bad ruling somewhere along the way. So we're very concerned about that."

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery, though, had issued an opinion saying judges would likely continue to side with the more inclusive definitions in current case law, such as the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court marriage equality decision, the News Sentinel reports.

In Alabama, Ivey signed a measure that would prevent the state from withholding or pulling licenses from religiously affiliated adoption agencies that follow the tenets of their faith in placing children, even if that means refusing to place adoptees with same-sex couples or LGBT individuals. The legislation, House Bill 24, applies "only to private agencies that don't accept state or federal funds," the Associated Press reports.

"This bill is not about discrimination, but instead protects the ability of religious agencies to place vulnerable children in a permanent home," Ivey said in a statement, according to the AP.

But opponents said the law is clearly aimed at allowing discrimination. "We are deeply disappointed that the legislature and the governor took on this unnecessary, discriminatory bill instead of focusing on how to improve the lives of all Alabamians, no matter who they are or whom they love," said Eva Kendrick, state director of the Human Rights Campaign Alabama. The bill also means these agencies can discriminate against interfaith couples, single parents, and others who pose a conflict with their faith, in addition to LGBT people.

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