Julia Tate-Keith prevails in ‘Natural Meaning’ lawsuit against state
By Michelle Willard | Photos Courtesy Julia Tate-Keith
Gov. Bill Haslam signed the “natural, ordinary meaning” bill into law on Friday, May 5. By Monday, May 8, Murfreesboro attorney Julia Tate-Keith had filed a lawsuit on behalf of six same-sex couples challenging the law.
The law, which passed the Tennessee General Assembly in April on a near party-line vote, required any undefined words in state law to be given their natural and underlying meaning. The bill meant that a child conceived by artificial insemination to a lesbian couple would only have the biological mother’s name on the birth certificate.
“We have another statute that covers donor insemination that says the husband is the legal parent,” said Tate-Keith, who specializes in family law. Fatherhood is granted with no additional steps needed, like a second-parent adoption, she explained.
In the time since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage, the Tennessee Department of Health had read the statute as gender neutral, Tate-Keith explained.
“And then this bill was introduced and they wanted it the be read literally,” she said.
A clear win
Just like the swiftness of Tate-Keith’s filing, it didn’t take long for the case to be settled.
By July, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle had dismissed the lawsuit based on the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Pavan v. Smith.
“Pavan made clear that states must name married same-sex couples on birth certificates if they name married straight couples,” explained Christopher Smith, Tate-Keith’s co-counsel on the case.
Because Supreme Court rulings supersede state law, Lyle dismissed the case because the Natural Meaning law was in conflict with the Supreme Court’s interpretation.
“In other words, the law is so clear (according to the Supreme Court) that married same-sex couples have the same rights as married opposite-sex couples, that there was no issue for the (Davidson County) court to decide,” Smith said.
Tate-Keith called it “a clear win. She ruled they have a right to be recognized as parents. The Supreme Court has spoken on this and state legislators cannot act to nullify what the Supreme Court said.”
The case was important because the law would have treated homosexual couples differently than heterosexual couples, Tate-Keith said.
“It is very important to have both names on the birth certificate at the time of birth,” she said, explaining it protects not just the parents but also the child because things can go wrong.
The law could have caused significant problems for couples should something unforeseen occur between birth and adoption. Two of the couples who filed suit have medical issues that could impact the lives and health of the claimants, she said.
The lawsuit wasn’t just about birth certificates, she said. It was about inheritance, child support, visitation rights and equal protection under the law.
“That’s what the Supreme Court was trying to do,” she said “They weren’t trying to protect gay couples but to protect the children of gay couples. That’s what we were trying to do–protect these kids.”
Fighting in the future
While this fight is over, both Tate-Keith and Smith see other battles on the horizon.
“I think every opportunity they have, they will try to do something,” Tate-Keith said, adding the transgendered individuals are the most vulnerable right now.
She worries for them with the tone being set by the White House and President Donald Trump’s tweet in July that unsuccessfully attempted (as of print time) to ban transgendered soldiers from serving in the military.
Even though Trump’s tweet is unenforceable as policy, his actions “give permission to act against them,” she said. She expects more bathroom bills to be filed in the upcoming state legislative session as well as other acts of discrimination.
“I worry greatly about our transgendered friends,” she said.
And the fight over same-sex marriage isn’t over yet either.
Smith said he expects state lawmakers to attempt “to re-define parental rights in terms of biology.”
Or on the most extreme end, repeal marriage completely.
“So rather than extend marital rights to same-sex couples, as both federal and–because of our case–state law is clear Tennessee must do, certain legislators would rather deprive all married Tennesseans of these rights,” Smith said.
Only time will tell what rights will be targeted next, but both are certain the fight will continue.
In the meantime, Tate-Keith and Smith will wait for the babies of their clients to be born. The first is due in mid-September.