Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam on Friday enacted a bill that critics say is an underhanded way of denying rights to same-sex couples by insisting on the "natural and ordinary meaning" of words in state statues.
The legislation, which was signed by the Republican governor despite pressure from civil liberty and gay-rights groups, requires words in Tennessee law be interpreted with their "natural and ordinary meaning, without forced or subtle construction that would limit or extend the meaning of the language." It did not explain, however, what that means.
Civil rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocates warned the law is meant to undermine the rights of same-sex couples in any statutes that include words like "husband," "wife," "mother" or "father."
Neither of the two sponsoring lawmakers, Republican state Senator John Stevens and Republican state Representative Andrew Farmer, could be reached to comment.
However, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported Stevens said he proposed the measure partly to compel courts to side more closely with the dissenting opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 2015 ruling in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges which legalized same-sex marriage.
Haslam said on Friday he believes the law will not change how courts interpret legal precedent.
"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," he said in a statement.
The Tennessee measure is one of more than 100 bills introduced in U.S. state legislatures this year that to curtail LGBT rights, said Cathryn Oakley, senior legislative counsel for the LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.
While public opinion polls and court rulings have shifted in favor of same-sex rights in recent years, there is ongoing pushback from the 2015 ruling, Oakley said.
Last month, a Kentucky family court judge made headlines by issuing an order stating he would not hear adoption cases involving same-sex couples due to personal objections. That echoed Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis' 2015 refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses because it violated her religious beliefs.
Gay-rights groups previously warned the law could create an economic backlash against Tennessee similar to that suffered by North Carolina, where a law requiring students use the restroom of the gender on their birth certificates led sports organizations and musicians to cancel events.
(Reporting by Chris Kenning in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis)