Tenn. Lawmaker proposes bill defining “biological distinctions between men and women.”

Jan 16, 2017

Rep. Ragan

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  A Tennessee lawmaker has filed a bill that has gay rights advocates fuming.

Republican Rep. John Ragan of Oak Ridge has offered  a measure in the House that would require that Tennessee law give the words "husband," "wife," "mother" and "father"what the bill calls “their natural and ordinary meaning.”

The bill goes on to say that the meaning of the four words should be based only on the “biological distinctions between men and women.”

The Tennessee Equality Project says the bill “at worst erases our community and at best makes life difficult as we attempt to live our true gender identities.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: WMOT asked Rep. Ragan to comment for this story. He declined to allow his comments to be recorded. Rep. Ragan did send WMOT a statement and asked that it be reproduced in full. That statement follow below:

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Representative Ragan's Statement Concerning House Bill 0033​

I have received quite a few calls and emails concerning House Bill 33 or Senate Bill 30.  Some of these communications indicate a misunderstanding of, either, our state’s constitution, or the role of the General Assembly.  Therefore, let me begin my comments with a few sentences on some generalities before directly addressing the bill.

Under our state constitution, a bill must pass, word-for-word the same in each chamber of the General Assembly.  However, because each chamber has slightly different rules and filing procedures, each chamber requires a sponsor from its own membership and there are different numbers assigned.  Consequently, House Bill 33 and Senate Bill 30 are actually the same bill.

The General Assembly routinely passes bills related to court decisions on a variety and number of issues for ease of reference, clarity, and other reasons. Furthermore, it is often the role of the legislature to define certain words in the Tennessee code to provide guidance and reduce ambiguity for our court system.  This type of effort is especially important when the same words are used in a number of different places in the Tennessee Code.  In fact, this reason is why a specific portion of the code is devoted to definitions.

House Bill 33 does nothing more than simply putting definitions into code based on prior court decisions and long-standing precedent.  The bill does not change any existing law, officially published, public policy or any existent rights.  Consequently, while anyone can file a suit against anyone else over anything in our system, there is no obvious or substantive risk from any potential new litigation because of this bill.

For your listener’s information, the original precedent that is being used as the basis for House Bill 33 comes from an Eastman Chemical Company case in 2000.  However, the Tennessee Supreme Court has already cited that precedent in a 2014 family law case as applying generally when construing statutes.

Simply for the purpose of clarity, the following is a direct quote from the court case that is the basis of House Bill 33:  "Legislative intent is to be ascertained whenever possible from the natural and ordinary meaning of the language used, without forced or subtle construction that would limit or extend the meaning of the language." Eastman Chemical Company v. Johnson, 151 S.W.3d 503 (Tenn. 2004) quoting Lipscomb, 32 S.W.3d 840, 844 (Tenn. 2000).

Perhaps I am missing something.  However, it is difficult to see that requiring use of “natural and ordinary meaning of the language” to discern legislative intent in the Tennessee Code supports some nefarious plot.  Likewise, it is puzzling how “clarifying and cross-referencing court decisions and wording used throughout the Tennessee Code” should give anyone the impression that, to use some words from emails to my office, “there is intent to limit someone’s rights.”

In summary, it appears that some people are objecting to something other than what is actually in the House Bill 33.  As a result, I would invite those people to limit themselves to the exact wording of the bill, the Tennessee Code and the referenced court decisions when arriving at their conclusions.

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