In South, Issue of Gay Marriage Exposes Hate and Fear
Tribune, April 8, 2004
435 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611
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By Dahleen Glanton, Tribune national correspondent
DAYTON, Tenn.—As a longtime
crusader for conservative Christian values in this Bible Belt town, June
Griffin has taken on everything from preserving anti-sodomy laws to fighting
the state lottery. But the biggest challenge yet, she said, is the issue of
“They are forcing their way into our towns, breaking
our doors down, saying, ‘We are sodomites and there is nothing you can do
about it.’ They want to be able to commit sodomy without it being called a
crime, and then cover up their sins with our tax dollars,” said Griffin, 64,
a Dayton minister.
“We still have mountain boys living here,” she said,
“and they might not know much about giving speeches, but if you come across
their property, they will fill you with lead. This is a God-fearing place, and
we don’t see anything wrong with running [homosexuals] out of town.”
Last month, the Rhea County commissioners moved to ban
homosexuals from living in the county, but rescinded the motion two days later
after an outpouring of opposition.
While many Christians are calling for tolerance, some
evangelicals see homosexuality and same-sex marriage as an assault on the most
sacred values of their religion. Nowhere has the opposition to gay marriage
been more intense than in the South, where conservative Christian values are
Already angry over failed efforts to display the 10
Commandments in public buildings and offer prayer in schools, evangelical
Protestants have deemed gay marriage their No.1 concern among social issues
when it comes to choosing a candidate to vote for, surpassing abortion and gun
control, according to polls.
As gay couples have obtained marriage licenses in places
such as San Francisco and upstate New York, local governments in the South are
scurrying to find ways to keep from legally recognizing them.
Last week, Georgia, which already has a law banning gay
marriage, approved a constitutional amendment ensuring that same-sex couples
would not be allowed to wed. The amendment will appear on the November ballot,
and is likely to energize Christian conservatives at the polls, according to
political science experts.
“We are overwhelmingly opposed to same-sex marriage and
we are overwhelmingly in support of a federal constitutional amendment to ban
it,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s
Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “The courts are trying to force us
to redefine the nature of the family, the basic building block of human
society. It’s a dangerous move, and people won’t allow it.”
The message is being spread throughout the South that
homosexuality is not acceptable.
Sinful, destructive lifestyle
The Southern Baptist Convention, with more than 16
million members and 42,000 churches nationwide, has undertaken an initiative
to convince gays that they can become heterosexual if they accept Jesus Christ
and reject their “sinful, destructive lifestyle.” The “hate the sin but
love the sinner” message is being taught in thousands of adult Sunday school
classes across the country.
In New Orleans, fundamentalist Christians tried to ban
the annual Southern Decadence festival, or “gay Mardi Gras,” an event that
draws thousands of homosexuals. A conservative Christian lobbying group has
vowed to end the popular Gay Days at Disney World in Florida, equating the
annual gathering to “a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan.” Across the South,
churches are holding rallies and preachers are denouncing homosexuality from
In Wilmington, N.C., parents complained that the
elementary school library carried the children’s book “King & King,”
in which a prince falls in love with another prince. The Atlanta Human
Relations Commission recently found that Druid Hills Golf Club, a private
country club, discriminated against gay couples by refusing to provide spousal
memberships as it does for straight couples. In Lafayette, La., a teacher
scolded a 7-year-old boy in front of his classmates and sent him to a school
behavioral clinic for telling another student about his lesbian mothers.
But one of the most direct actions against homosexuality
was what happened in Dayton â€” a town of about 6,000 residents located
about 25 miles north of Chattanooga. Dayton is best known as the site of the
1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which John Scopes, represented by Chicago
attorney Clarence Darrow, was convicted of teaching evolution in school.
Rhea County commissioners said they thought they were
passing a resolution supporting a constitutional amendment forbidding same-sex
marriage, but instead, the motion sought state legislative approval to charge
homosexuals with crimes against nature. It also gave the county attorney
authority to come up with a law to ban homosexuals from living in the county.
“We need to keep them out of here,” Commissioner J.C.
Fugate said when introducing the motion. His comment was met with laughter and
applause from the audience.
Two days later, after thousands of letters, e-mails and
phone calls from throughout the world, they rescinded the motion.
“We couldn’t have paid $2 million to get this kind of
publicity, but it’s the kind of thing that never goes away,” said Rhea
County Atty. Gary Fritts, who said he planned to rework the motion to reflect
the county’s opposition to gay marriage. “This [gay marriage] has caused
irreparable harm all over the world. Some people are embarrassed and want to
look down on us, but a lot of people have called and said, ‘Hey, go to it,
Gay activists have gotten involved in the controversy,
and recently 300 people showed up at the county courthouse to protest. There
has been talk of having a “gay float” in the annual Strawberry Festival
parade and holding a “Rhea County Gay Day” this summer that would attract
homosexuals from all over the country. A Chattanooga radio station drew angry
callers who promised that visiting gays would be met with violence.
As a conservative evangelical Christian, Kenneth Daniel
Miller does not condone violence, but he sees homosexuality and same-sex
marriage as “a sin that goes against God’s command.”
“They want us to endorse the homosexual lifestyle, but
Christians will never do that,” said Miller, 23, who graduated with a degree
in Bible from Bryan College, a religious institution in Dayton. “If we allow
gay marriage, it will dehumanize people and they will be no different than
some kind of mechanized cog.”
Bobbi Riggles, 48, and her husband, Steve, 54, said they
are appalled at the way their neighbors are carrying on over gay marriage.
They believe the commissioners are out of touch with many people who live in
“The entire county does not think like that, and most
of us were shocked that something like that was said,” said Bobbi Riggles,
who moved to Dayton with her husband from New Jersey 10 years ago. “This has
drawn a line between the fundamentalist people and those of us who are more
accepting. And we are just embarrassed by it all.”
Josh Runyon, 27, who grew up in Dayton, used to believe
he would go to hell because he is gay. Everywhere he went, people reminded him
of it â€” on the street, in the fast-food restaurant where he worked and
in the church where he worshiped.
Since he came out at age 14, Runyon, the son of a
preacher, has grown used to Christians telling him that his sexual orientation
is an abomination and quoting the Bible to make their point. Some offered to
pray for him; others threatened to burn a cross on his front lawn if he
didn’t renounce his sexuality.
“Christianity stopped making sense to me, so when I
turned 18, I left the church. I just didn’t feel welcome,” said Runyon,
who later moved to Chattanooga. “People are locked in ideas from 20 years
ago. I was taught that homosexuality is a sin and that gay people were going
to hell. So I decided to stop going to church and just be gay.”
Rev. Matthew Nevels, a former Southern Baptist minister,
said he left the convention after church members shunned his son when he was
dying of AIDS. Nevels, of Chattanooga, is president of Parents, Family and
Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
‘Fear is based on ignorance’
“So many pastors have master’s degrees in divinity or
PhDs in theology, but they follow a prescribed course of study in seminaries
that don’t offer any research on sexuality. There is an unwillingness to
look at things in an open-minded way,” said Nevels, associate pastor of
Pilgrim Congregational Church in Chattanooga.
“The fear is based on ignorance,” he said. “And the
majority of people in the churches just accept what society dishes out without
challenging it. They accept that being gay is a sin because of one or two
verses in the Bible, which often are misinterpreted.”
Bill Watson, 36, and his partner, Jason McDowell, 25,
can’t understand why people are so angry over same-sex marriage. They live
in an apartment in Chattanooga where they are raising McDowell’s 5-year-old
nephew. Recently they flew to San Francisco to get married, and now they hope
to adopt the child, whose mother is too ill to care for him.
They said they are prepared to go to court to challenge
Tennessee’s anti-gay-marriage law as well as the law that prohibits same-sex
couples from jointly adopting children.
“People used to criticize gays for being promiscuous,
and here we are trying to have a monogamous relationship and people are upset
about that,” said McDowell, a nurse. “When people come to our home, they
see this is a normal family. We are not running around in tutus like you see
on TV. We are boring. We come home, put the baby to bed and go to sleep. If we
are lucky, we can get a movie in.”
Steve White, director of Chattanooga CARES, an AIDS
resource center, said images of same-sex couples have sparked fear and furor
among fundamentalist Christians. “There is a certain level of fear and
loathing in places such as Rhea County, and they use that fear as an excuse to
hate,” White said. “These are rural people who want to be separate from
the people in New York and San Francisco. So any sort of differences are
“We are at a crossroads here, and it is not going to be
a gentle discussion. It is going to be a fight,” he said. “But if you look
throughout history, people who are afraid lose the battles, and people who
have courage win. I think we have seen the faces of the people who are
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