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Nature Isn’t Natural Anymore

A new law stating that words used in Tennessee’s statutes should be given their “natural and ordinary meaning” provoked a firestorm of controversy by the proponents of same-sex marriage. It appears that the word “natural” in the legislation is the problem. But if so, then we really have a problem.

After the bill passed, the head of the state organization that led the opposition to the bill told a reporter that the word “natural” in the new law concerned him. Specifically, he said, “We know the way ‘natural’ is typically used in respect to our relationships. Our families aren’t natural.”

That is a very telling statement. According to Webster’s Dictionary, “natural” means “being in accordance with or determined by nature.” Thus, what we have is an acknowledgment (probably unintended) that people don’t “typically” think of a sexual relationship between two people of the same sex as being “natural.” In other words, a same-sex relationship that is sexual (as distinguished from social) is not “natural” within the “natural and ordinary” meaning of the word “natural.”

But it is also an acknowledgment that the kind of family that same-sex married couples have is not natural in the same way that families of a married man and woman are. Whether a man and a woman actually have children or are physically capable of having children is not the issue in this context; it’s that having children is “natural” to that type of relationship or, in Webster’s words, “in accordance with nature.” Nature will never produce a family through the sexual union of two people of the same sex.

I don’t say this to demean anyone because, after all, I’m not the one who said the relationships and families at issue were not “natural.” I’m just calling attention to what was said. But my point is simply this: It is hard to forever suppress nature. It bubbles back up in our consciousness and comes out in conversation, sometimes when we least expect it. In the words of professor J. Budziszewski, there are some things we just cannot not know.

The only way for what is not natural to become natural is to give the word “natural” an unnatural meaning. And that is where we are headed as a society. We are being asked to give up believing that there are any things that are “natural” to our humanity and pretend that things are only what the law says they are.

In the context of the LGBT agenda, that means words like “marriage,” “fatherhood,” “motherhood,” and “family” will now only mean what we say they mean. They are mere words without meaning until we assign them meaning by a law; there is nothing naturally true about any of them.

However, the problem is that giving a word a meaning contrary to its natural meaning requires us to give a new meaning to all the words associated with that word. That necessity is currently reflected in our struggle to figure out what to do with marriage-related words in other laws now that our law has abandoned the natural meaning of marriage.

And herein lies our real problem—constructing a universe of meaning to replace the universe of meaning we “naturally” had. That is a God-sized task, and it begins with giving the word “God” a new meaning, too; it now simply means “us.” To me, that just doesn’t seem natural.


David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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Decorated Air Force Colonel Punished for Views on Marriage

Though his name was recently cleared from allegations that he spoke derogatorily about homosexuals, Air Force Col. Michael Madrid, a four-time Meritorious Service Medal recipient, was accused of lying and slapped with a surprise Letter of Admonishment by his superior for sharing his Christian beliefs about sexuality and marriage, ensuring he would never be promoted and could be demoted. First Liberty has demanded that the letter be rescinded because it violates Madrid’s religious liberty.

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What Newspapers Didn’t Tell You

Thomas Jefferson once said, “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” After being on the inside of state politics for 23 years, I increasingly tend to agree with him. A story in The Tennessean this week is a case in point.

The story related to action taken Wednesday by the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on House Bill 892, dubbed the Tennessee Natural Marriage Defense Act. Thankfully, no other newspaper picked up the story because it so missed the whole point of what took place that those who didn’t read it are better off than those who did.

The heart of the debate centered on an amendment that rewrote the original bill. If you read the article, you would have no idea what the amendment was about.

The amendment is primarily directed at two things: directing state and local officials to obey the marriage license law that requires applicants to be a male and female until a final court order tells them otherwise, and making sure that the state protects them in court if they do.

The story never told you why the amendment was offered. It was because no court has ever ruled on how the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex “marriage” decision (Obergefell v. Hodges) applies to Tennessee’s male-female marriage license law.

Many would say, “So? The Court was very clear; laws restricting licenses only to males and females are invalid.” That’s true, but that’s also the point—no one, including our state attorney general, has thought to ask, “If that opinion renders our law invalid, then what is the law?”

This is where an opinion from the attorney general’s office comes in. His office has opined that office holders such as county clerks must obey a law until a court officially declares it unconstitutional.

This opinion makes perfect sense. If every county clerk could decide how to interpret the effect of Obergefell on our law, then, as I told the subcommittee, we would have chaos.

One clerk, following the attorney general’s opinion, could say that the law is still valid until a court rules it is invalid and might only issue licenses to male and female couples.

Another clerk could say there is no marriage license law because Obergefell invalidated it, and the Legislature hasn’t replaced it. And another clerk could decide the Obergefell decision itself somehow “amended” the law to authorize any two people to get a license.

Only a court can “judge” which of those views is correct, and no judge has done so.

So why aren’t county clerks doing what the attorney general said? Why aren’t they following the law until a court tells them to stop? Simple. They will get sued for not issuing a license to same-sex couples, and they will have to defend that lawsuit at the expense of local taxpayers. And that is where the amendment comes in.

The amendment protects all officials who will obey the law. It does so by allowing the attorney general to defend them and, if the attorney general declines, then the state will indemnify that official (and local taxpayers) from any legal fees he or she has to pay and from any court costs if they lose.

That amendment was adopted. Then the subcommittee delayed a vote on the bill, as amended, until next year.

The vote was delayed because two pending lawsuits that I am handling as an attorney (The Tennessean wrongly reported that I was a “party”) may resolve the question of what law, if any, still exists after Obergefell.

However, if over the next few months the Tennessee court system decides it does not want to hear those cases and refuses to determine what the effect of Obergefell was on our law, then we will come back to the bill. And if the bill is enacted, maybe some of our county clerks will muster the courage they need to obey the law and follow the attorney general’s advice to that effect.

If just one county clerk then decides to obey the law, a same-sex couple will sue him or her. But he or she will be defended in court by the state. And the courts will not be able to avoid making a decision in that case on what law, if any, still exists after Obergefell.

What happened in that subcommittee was a significant step toward resolving a huge, unanswered constitutional question left hanging by Obergefell.

If the bill has to be taken up again next year, then opponents will have to address the legal and constitutional question the amendment raises. The focus will not be on whether we should have same-sex “marriage,” but on whether we should uphold the rule of law. That will be a significant change in the nature of the debate.

And now to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, you are better educated than the person who read the newspaper story.


David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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USDA Targets Meatpacking Plant for Marriage Beliefs

The USDA is threatening to shut down a family-run Michigan meatpacking company owned by Donald Vander Boon if it doesn’t stop showcasing religious literature about one-man, one-woman marriage in its break room. The USDA deems such literature “offensive and harassing speech,” yet ADF Senior Counsel Jeremy Tedesco responds, “Americans shouldn’t be threatened with the loss of their livelihoods simply because they live and speak peacefully according to their beliefs.”

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Barronelle Stutzman

Religious Liberty As We’ve Experienced It Is Dead

Last week the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that a florist, Barronelle Stutzman, could be forced by her state to provide floral arrangements for a same-sex “wedding” ceremony in violation of her religious beliefs. What’s surprising to me is that her loss is surprising to so many Christians.

At issue in Ms. Stutzman’s case was a statute that prohibited those engaged in public commerce from not providing services to someone because of their sexual orientation. Several technical, legal arguments were made as to whether the statute should be construed to apply to her, but when you’re fighting for religious liberty on technical grounds related to the wording of the statute, then your “win,” if you win, is short lived. A liberal state will just amend the statute to close the “loophole.” That kind of fight for religious liberty, while helpful in the moment, is, as I said last week, a “useless effort” from a long-term perspective.

The real issue for those who care about religious liberty is found in the fact that the state Supreme Court rejected Ms. Stutzman’s argument that the court had “to balance her right to religious free exercise against [the customer’s] right to equal service.”

Ms. Stutzman’s Claim Actually Lost Nearly a Century Ago

Ms. Stutzman’s legal argument was before the U.S. Supreme Court 98 years ago and “religious free exercise” lost. Ironically, it was even a case about marriage! The case was Reynolds v. United States.

The question was whether Mr. Reynolds could be punished for polygamy under the U.S. laws then applicable to the Utah territory. Read carefully what the Supreme Court said of his claim that to punish him for polygamy would violate his right to the free exercise of religion:

The only question which remains is, whether those who make polygamy a part of their religion are excepted from the operation of the statute. . . . Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship, would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice? Or if a wife religiously believed it was her duty to burn herself upon the funeral pile of her dead husband, would it be beyond the power of the civil government to prevent her carrying her belief into practice? . . . Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief?

To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances.

The law punishing polygamy was upheld.

It was upheld because the religious views of the time reflected in the common law and in the history of Western Civilization held that polygamous marriages were “odious” and an “offense against society.” Thus, the Court reasoned, the Framers of the Constitution could not have intended for the free exercise of religion to be an excuse to violate laws founded on the country’s moral beliefs.

Why the Stutzmans of America Will Continue to Lose

To understand why Reynolds lost and why Ms. Stutzman had to lose, we must understand the belief system that undergirded the Reynolds Court’s decision. It was a belief that a legal structure (not just a particular law) rests upon some moral code, and religious freedom can’t be used to violate the moral code found in the law. That was true then, and it is true now.

What has changed—and it explains why polygamy could be banned in 1879 and why it will not be able to be banned in the coming years—is the religious beliefs that informed our laws back then. We no longer believe that God has imposed any laws on the social order that all must recognize, including those who make our civil laws.

For example, today our moral code is increasingly finding nothing wrong with same-sex “marriage.” Therefore, a religiously grounded right not to participate in a same-sex “marriage” (unless perhaps one is a church or a minister) is not acceptable. An exception would violate today’s prevailing religious orthodoxy. The same will be true for polygamy.

Put another way, in the language of the Reynolds case, same-sex “marriage” is now “okay” not “odious.” It is more “acceptable” to society, not an “offense” against it. Therefore, Ms. Stutzman cannot make her “religious beliefs superior to the law of the land.”

Sadly, over the last century, the Christian Church became complicit in this cultural change in the religious underpinnings of our legal structure by making Christianity a matter of strictly personal behavior and by not wanting our ministers to discuss the issues of our day from the pulpit.

The vacuum the Christian Church left has been filled by another religion, secular humanism. Religious liberty for those whose beliefs are consistent with secular humanism is alive; it’s just not alive for those who, like Stutzman, hold to biblical beliefs.

The Church is now reaping the fruit of the pietism and cultural silence it has sown. Thus, conservative Christians shouldn’t be surprised anymore when courts uphold laws that force them to violate their beliefs.


David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

FACT-RSS-Blog-Icon-small Get David Fowler’s Blog as a feed.

Invite David Fowler to speak at your event