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Are Tennessee Officials Content to Ignore the Law?

It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that we have a number of state officials (non-legislators) and local elected officials who either don’t know the law or are content with ignoring it. An opinion from Attorney General Slatery proves my point.

I was recently preparing for oral arguments in a lawsuit I am handling on behalf of various ministers and residents of Williamson County against the Williamson County clerk. In the course of my preparations, I ran across an opinion from our state’s attorney general that proved the point I was going to try to make to the court.

The Background Context That Exposes the Lawlessness

To appreciate one of the points I was going to make in court, you need to understand what the lawsuit is about.

The lawsuit alleges that Tennessee’s marriage license law, which requires that applicants be a male and female, may be unconstitutional because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015. The Supreme Court “held” that laws like Tennessee’s were invalid, but despite what you may think based on reports by the media, that law was not part of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision.

In other words, no court has “officially” ruled on whether Obergefell invalidated our law. That probably seems like a technicality, but that’s where the attorney general’s opinion comes in.

The Attorney General Says, ‘Obey the Law’

One of the points I wanted to make in my oral argument was that until a court rules that our law was somehow “amended” by Obergefell, no court decision has ever authorized the county clerk to issue a license to anyone other than male and female applicants. Until then, my argument was that the county clerk had to obey the existing law and that by issuing licenses to same-sex couples, the clerk was acting illegally.

It turns out that my view of the law is the same as Attorney General Slatery’s!

In 1984, the attorney general was asked if elected officials such as county clerks still had to obey a state law even if the attorney general had issued an opinion to the effect that the courts would hold the law unconstitutional. This is important because I’m sure our attorney general would say that our marriage license law would be invalid if ever challenged in court.

Here is what the attorney general said:

[U]nder relevant constitutional principles, the public, individuals, and ministerial officers [like County Clerks] must presume a state statute to be constitutional until it is declared unconstitutional by a court of competent jurisdiction.

What the Attorney General’s Opinion Means

That means a county clerk has no legal authority to determine if our law is unconstitutional after Obergefell and certainly has no authority to determine if the effect of Obergefell was to judicially remove the language in the statute requiring applicants to be a male and female.

The attorney general’s opinion rightly concludes that only a court can interpret what effect Obergefell had on our marriage license law. Moreover, the attorney general essentially said that even if he tells the county clerks that Obergefell rewrote the law, that opinion is not a court’s opinion and the law should still be obeyed.

What This Means for Our Attorney General

After reading that attorney general’s opinion, I have a lot of questions. Here are two of them:

  • Why has our state attorney general not told the county clerks to obey the law until a court says otherwise? After all, that is the attorney general’s “official” opinion.
  • Why is the attorney general sitting out the lawsuit we’ve filed instead of joining us in asking the court what, if anything, is left of our marriage license law? Opposing our view of Obergefell seems better to me than being apathetic about the law being flat out ignored.

What This Means for All Our Elected Officials

But this question is the real kicker for me: Why hasn’t some state or local official brought their own legal action to have a court determine what the effect of Obergefell was on our law?

The only thing I can figure is that they either support same-sex “marriage,” or, more likely, being lawless is just easier for them. Apart from our little lawsuits, no one seems to care if they disregard the law.

I guess we’ll soon find out if even our judges care whether our elected officials obey the law.

Listen to the key exchange I had with the Court of Appeals about this point.


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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FACT President Blasts Obama’s Unconstitutional ‘Bathroom Edict’

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (May 13, 2016) – The following statement related to President Obama’s “guidance letter” regarding Title IX can be attributed to FACT President David Fowler:

“President Obama has outdone himself with his latest attempt to violate the right of parents to protect their children, violate the privacy of children, and trample on the Constitution and rule of law by pretending that a “guidance letter” can have the force of law. The thought that a “letter” from a government agency can change the meaning of the word “sex” to “gender identity” in a law passed in 1972 is repugnant to the Constitution and the concept of the rule of law. It is akin to an “edict” from a man who thinks himself a king.

“If this is allowed to go unchallenged, then mere letters from cabinet members will from now on become “law” and members of Congress, who have already been AWOL on this issue, can finally just permanently adjourn. Presidents acting like kings, with cabinet members as henchmen and members of the Supreme Court as consultants, can just rule us.

“We call on Gov. Haslam and Attorney General Slatery to advise our schools across the state that President Obama’s ‘guidance letter’ is not the law and can be disregarded or initiate a federal lawsuit to have the court declare the ‘guidance letter’ for what it is, a letter not a law. If our governor and chief law enforcement officer will not protect the Constitution and rule of law, then they are failing to discharge their constitutional duties, and members of the General Assembly and the public should take notice.”

The Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT), which Fowler heads, was formed in 2006 by a group of citizens concerned about the growing negative impact of public policies on marriage, families, life, and religious liberty. FACT’s mission is to equip Tennesseans and their elected officials to effectively promote and defend a culture that values God’s design for the family, for the sake of the common good. For more information, visit FACTn.org.

Media Contact: Laura Bagby, Director of Communications  |  Office Phone: 615-261-1338  |  Email: laura.bagby@factn.org

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FACT President Blasts Attorney General’s ‘Bathroom Bill’ Opinion

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (April 11, 2016) —The following statement regarding Attorney General Slatery’s opinion of House Bill 2414, the “bathroom bill,” can be attributed to FACT President David Fowler:

“Attorney General Slatery’s opinion regarding the risk to the state of losing Title IX funding if House Bill 2414 passes puts forth a carefully worded legal position that only the trained lawyer can decode to deconstruct the fear of the federal government it engenders.

“It essentially regurgitates legal arguments made by the Obama administration that were flatly and unequivocally rejected by the only two courts to actually rule on them. A first-year law student would get in trouble for writing a brief that ignored relevant persuasive authority as if it did not exist!

“The misleading nature of these omissions is compounded by the fact that the attorney general instead cites settlement agreements, not court decisions, entered into with the U.S. Department of Education. A settlement agreement only means that the school districts decided not to litigate the clear meaning of the word “sex” in Title IX and just go along with what the Obama administration wanted. Settlement agreements have no persuasive value as a matter of law, unlike the court decisions that have actually ruled in favor of sex-designated bathrooms.

“Thankfully, the attorney general did mention that, by law, no money can be withheld from a state until the state loses its legal arguments, and then only if it doesn’t come into compliance with that ruling within 30 days. By law, no money can be withheld during this process, and no money can be withheld retroactively.

“In other words, contrary to the general impression the opinion tends to create, legislators need to understand that there is little risk that the state will lose any Title IX money so long as it complies with whatever the U.S. Supreme Court might someday say the word “sex” means. No one needs to run around like their pants are on fire as if there is some immediate, real threat to Tennessee losing Title IX funds.

“But the bottom line is that Tennessee cannot be held hostage by what the Supreme Court might possibly say at some point about the meaning of the word “sex” when the law, as it exists right now, is clearly in support of House Bill 2414.

“The people of Tennessee are tired of having their public policies being dictated to them by the various branches of the federal government, and they sure don’t want the state surrendering without a fight to the Obama administration on whether boys can choose to use a girl’s bathroom or locker room.”

The Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT), which Fowler heads, was formed in 2006 by a group of citizens concerned about the growing negative impact of public policies on marriage, families, life, and religious liberty. FACT’s mission is to equip Tennesseans and their elected officials to effectively promote and defend a culture that values God’s design for the family, for the sake of the common good. For more information, visit FACTn.org.

Media Contact: Laura Bagby, Director of Communications  |  Office Phone: 615-261-1338  |  Email: laura.bagby@factn.org