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In Tennessee, Activist Drives Socially Conservative Political Agenda

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Social conservatives across the South have been forcing debate this spring on these so-called bathroom bills. This week, the Justice Department warned North Carolina that its new law violates the Civil Rights Act. It requires people to use public restrooms which correspond to their biological sex.

The debate is also happening in Tennessee, and we're going to meet the activist behind it now. Here's Chas Sisk with member station WPLN in Nashville.

CHAS SISK, BYLINE: One tense moment in the State Legislature last month captures the influence of Tennessee's best-known Christian conservative lobbyist.

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MARK WHITE: I'd like to ask David Fowler to come up.

SISK: But lawmakers didn't want to hear David Fowler's thoughts on Tennessee's bathroom bill. They wanted to give him a browbeating.

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WHITE: Mr. Fowler, I want to ask you, do you believe that I don't want to protect the privacy of children?

SISK: Mark White, a former school principal, Republican representative and member of Memphis's Bellevue Baptist Church was angry - angry at David Fowler. He held in his hand a print out of an email that Fowler had blasted out just a few days before. In it, Fowler accused a handful of lawmakers, most notably White, of blocking the measure.

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WHITE: And then I start getting emails from all my church people back home saying I'm letting boys go into girls' bathrooms, and I'm not protecting the privacy of our children. Do you believe that to be true?

DAVID FOWLER: Sir, I believe if boys go into girls' bathrooms, then their privacy is not protected. Yes, sir.

WHITE: I made a motion to study this so that we can get it right because I have concerns, and you send this out. Why?

SISK: But it was Rep. White who backed down. Minutes after taking Fowler to task, White and his Republican colleagues voted to send Tennessee's bathroom bill out of committee. The moment reveals how Fowler has come to be one of this state's most powerful lobbyists. It starts, he says, with letting politicians know where religiously conservative voters stand.

FOWLER: His problem is not with us. His problem is with the fact that a lot of people in his church apparently don't agree with him. Part of our job has been to say to legislators, no, there are people that care. And if you don't believe it, then, well, maybe you'll start hearing from some of them.

SISK: The legislative debate over where transgender people get to use the bathroom is not the only fight Fowler has sparked. This spring, he also shepherded a new law that enables faith-based counselors to turn away LGBT clients. Before that, there was the state's ban on same-sex marriage, struck down last summer.

Also bills on abortion, sex ed and school prayer. Fowler's had a hand in them all.

FOWLER: I didn't get into politics in order to, you know, work on the - how to finance cars. I came because I cared about the family religious liberty issues even then.

SISK: David Fowler is 58. He's a lawyer and head of the Family Action Council of Tennessee. It's one of 38 state-level groups associated with Focus on the Family, and Christian conservative organization. Fowler helped start the group in 2006 after serving 12 years as a state senator.

He says he was tired of churchgoers being unaware of what state lawmakers were doing.

FOWLER: You know, I grew up in the church, but most churches don't talk about politics.

SISK: Fowler was raised as a Baptist but now attends a Presbyterian Church. After Sunday services, he says he typically reads the works of Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas or for lighter fare, the novels of David Baldacci. Fowler describes his work week as standing up to a culture that has grown intolerant of Christianity.

FOWLER: See, the other side is not tolerant. They don't understand what tolerance is. Tolerance is the concession that you're wrong, but I will give you the space to be wrong. They have an intolerance, which is you're wrong, and I'm not going to give you space to be wrong.

SISK: I mean, the accusation is that that's what you're doing, though, with some of these pieces of legislation.

FOWLER: No, they're entitled to be as different as they want to be. What they're not entitled to do is because of that, necessarily inviolate my privacy.

MARY MANCINI: He's kind of like a bully, right?

SISK: Mary Mancini is the chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party. Before that, she was a lobbyist frequently going toe-to-toe with David Fowler.

MANCINI: Everything he does is to tear down a group of folks that he perceives as being different and not like him.

SISK: The bathroom bill was eventually withdrawn. Businesses threatened to boycott Tennessee, as they have North Carolina. Fowler shrugs off the defeat. He says win some, lose some. Either way, he knows he's shaping the debate here in Tennessee. For NPR news, I'm Chas Sisk in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.