Vote on Gays Brings Dayton New Infamy
Tennessean, May 2, 2004
1100 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203
By Leon Alligood, Staff Writer
DAYTON, Tenn.–The motion that
recently brought the world’s attention to this quaint valley town was
introduced as the final piece of business at the March 16 meeting of the Rhea
Until its last moments it was a routine meeting,
concerned primarily with budget amendments.
But those pieces of the people’s business were
forgotten when Commissioner J.C. Fugate asked the chairman to be recognized.
This is what he said: “But what it’s pertaining to is
these homosexual marriages that’s going on across our country. I’d like to
make a motion that those kind of people cannot live in Rhea County or abide in
Rhea County. If they’re caught in Rhea County, living together as such, that
they be tried for crimes against nature.”
His motion was seconded.
There was discussion lasting 3 minutes and 20 seconds.
Some commissioners now contend it was the most confusing 3 minutes and 20
seconds of their lives.
The roll was called.
As with 10 other votes that night, each member of the
quorum responded with “Aye.”
There was not a “nay” among the eight men.
And faster than anyone could say, “Well, I’ll be a
monkey’s uncle,” all hell proceeded to break loose in Rhea County.
A rally of reaction
Kristi Bacon, 26, was watching the news that night on one
of the Chattanooga television stations and couldn’t believe what she heard:
Gays would not be welcome in her town.
She dialed the television station’s number.
“I called them and said, ‘Hey, I live in Dayton.’ I
said if they want to start arresting gays for crimes against nature, arrest
me,” Bacon recalled, holding out her arms as if she were handcuffed.
The next night her face was on the TV, expressing anger,
frustration and disappointment. It was the first of several appearances she
would make in the coming weeks as reaction to the 8-0 vote rippled into an
ever-widening circle via the Internet and satellite networks.
Major newspapers across the country published accounts of
“We’ve had reporters in here from Los Angeles and
Chicago and all over the place. They just messed up,” said antique shop
owner Mary Brooks, referring to the county commissioners.
Angry e-mails and phone calls from around the globe
streamed into county and city offices. County Mayor Billy Ray Patton’s
office was the most easily accessed. He and his staff fielded more than 1,000
calls in three days.
“The vast majority of them were against the motion. It
was unreal. And I didn’t even have a vote,” he said, leaning back in his
chair at the courthouse annex.
Another easy target was the Dayton Chamber of Commerce,
which received nearly 200 e-mails and 70 phone calls in about 48 hours.
Worried that the commission’s action would affect industrial recruitment and
tourism, the chamber released a statement separating the group from the county
Bacon, meanwhile, found herself in a role she said she
never sought: spokeswoman for the gay community in Rhea County.
“I’ve never wanted to be in the spotlight. I’ve
never been in contact with so many people in my life, until a month ago,”
One reason she’s so busy is a gay-pride rally initiated
in response to the commission vote. It’s set for this coming Saturday at
Dayton’s Point Park and is expected to attract between 2,500 and 3,500
people from at least as far as Florida and Texas.
By virtue of her being out front in the controversy with
the commissioners, Bacon became one of the organizers of the event by default.
“It’s a lot of work, a lot of work,” she said.
Bacon is a thin woman with olive-green eyes and
sandy-colored hair, with small globes of sterling silver in each ear lobe and
a tattoo on the right side of her neck.
“Lyrikz,” the tattoo reads, a nod to her interest in
writing songs and poetry.
“I’ve had a few poems published, but I can’t find
the time lately,” she said.
The “Gay Day in Rhea” event became a reality when
several national groups, particularly Gays Fighting Religious Oppression,
called first to offer Bacon encouragement, then joined her when plans for a
rally took shape.
“It started out, let’s get a bunch of us together at
the Strawberry Festival,” said Bacon, referring to the town’s annual
homage to the sweet local product. This year’s is the 57th festival, with a
parade scheduled May 15.
“That’s when I jumped in and said, ‘Let’s not do
that. Let’s have our own little festival, but not during the Strawberry
Festival because we don’t want to be disrespectful,” Bacon said.
It will be a fun day, especially for the gays of Rhea
County, she said.
“We didn’t know there were so many of us around. Now
we’re getting together. There’s way more than a few of us.”
Rescinding the vote
Less than 48 hours after Fugate’s motion received
unanimous approval, the county commissioners convened in special session to
undo their action.
While there were only a handful of people at the Tuesday
night, March 16, meeting, the scene was much different on Thursday night, when
more than 300 angry people jammed the historic Rhea County Courthouse. As a
precaution, commissioners were escorted by sheriff’s deputies.
The scene reminded some people of what happened in July
1925 in that very courthouse, when a local teacher, John T. Scopes, was placed
on trial for teaching evolution. The trial drew hordes of media from around
the country, who dubbed Dayton “Monkeytown.”
Now it was another century, another age, another issue,
and Dayton was once again in the cross hairs of public scrutiny.
In one of the shortest, if not the shortest, meetings of
the commission on record, the eight men agreed to rescind their action of
Therein lies the rub: What was the intent of the original
motion? To criminalize homosexuality in Rhea County or, as their rescinding
motion was worded, to ask the county attorney to formulate a resolution
against gay marriage?
Two of the eight commissioners said it was the latter.
“We, and I say this from the depths of my heart,
sincerely, I believe we changed that motion to ask for a legitimate
resolution. I certainly didn’t believe what Mr. Fugate originally said was
legal or proper. I don’t think any one of us would have voted for something
like that. Yeah, you can’t do that. You can’t do that,” said
Commissioner Tom Davis, an eight-year member.
Fellow Commissioner Dennis R. Tumlin, in a March 31
letter to The Herald-News in Dayton, offered: “We were only looking for the
county attorney to bring a resolution against same-sex marriages to the next
workshop for further discussion, not a resolution banning gay people.”
Both men said they regretted how things went down.
“We created confusion in the minds of reporters who
were there. No question there in my mind, that shouldn’t have happened. We
should have been more careful,” said Davis, sitting behind his cluttered
desk in a short-sleeve dress shirt, a perfectly knotted tie falling to his
But none of the other commissioners, including Fugate,
could be reached for comment for this article despite repeated attempts to
contact them last week.
Some locals, having read transcripts and/or listened to
the audiotape of the March 16 meeting, said the commission’s intent remains
as murky as nearby Chickamauga Lake after a three-day downpour.
“I think it was a lot of misunderstanding. It got out
of hand really quick,” said Courtney Roberts, who graduates Saturday from
“That was foolish for them to say that the homosexual
could not live here, because they have to live somewhere. It was a dumb thing
to do,” said C. Don Pogue of Dayton, out for a walk with his Jack Russell
Herbert Wilson of Dayton, fishing with his family in
Point Park where the gay rally will be held, said he believed the commission
“must’ve went to a lunch with free drinks before the meeting. That’s the
only thing I can think of because it would be like voting blacks or Latinos
out of the county. It’s silly.”
Davis said the reaction was overblown because of the
“I’m convinced the huge furor, and it was
international, was because it happened in Dayton,” he said. “I firmly
believe that if it had happened in another small town in Tennessee, there
would have been an explosion and it would have died down.”
The Christian response
But it did happen in Dayton, a town that nearly 79 years
ago seized the headlines when a three-ring circus of a trial, complete with
caged monkeys, had a 10-day run.
It happened in a town the outside world all too easily
stereotyped as a hillbilly backwater, its denizens maligned as close-minded,
holy roller Bible-thumpers or dull-eyed moonshiners. Or both.
It happened in a town the world will just not forget.
If Tennessee is the center of the Bible belt, Rhea County
is the buckle, where the unvarnished Scripture is cinched tight against the
public conscience. Here, Sunday is for church and Wednesday night is for
midweek prayer services. Cars have bumper stickers proclaiming “God is my
co-pilot” and at the local thrift store, used Bibles are free.
Now, thousands of gays are headed this way on Saturday,
along with dozens of out-of-town media, and an unknown quantity of protesters,
perhaps some with violence in mind.
What would Jesus do?
Pastor Mike Justice of the Dayton Church of God has been
pondering that since the peace of his town was broken March 16. He is a tall
man, 6 feet and a few inches, with salt-and-pepper wavy hair, and a mustache
of the same hue resting on his upper lip like a bushy caterpillar.
Justice knew the answer would be found in love, but how
does a man of God lead his congregation, and encourage other congregations as
an active member in the Dayton Ministerial Association, to love instead of
“We became proactive,” Justice said.
“All people, regardless of their sexual attraction, are
loved by God and ought to be loved by Christians. My approach has been we have
a responsibility to communicate the very heart of Christ to anyone who would
come into our community.”
The pastor said Rhea County does not want the reputation
of being exclusionary, “as people who would reject people based on their
“At the same time, we must communicate that sin is sin,
and that all have sinned, and the reason that Jesus Christ came is to redeem
man from the curse of sin, regardless of same-sex attraction, or lying, or
cheating, or adultery, or whatever.”
It’s a message that has resonated with many residents.
Ten days before the Gay Day in Rhea rally, Justice stood in a hallway of Rhea
County High School as more than 300 people arrived to hear a lecture: “The
Christian response to same-sex attraction.”
“Frankly, I see this as an opportunity and not a
threat,” he said.
His view is not shared by June Griffin, the Dayton
resident known throughout the state as the “Ten Commandments Lady.” For
six years, she has criss-crossed the state to ask county commissions to post
the biblical laws in public buildings.
“They are just getting the preachers all greased up for
how to handle this,” said Griffin, referring to the Dayton Ministerial
“That was an eight-to-nothing vote and represented the
will of the people of Rhea County, and the commissioners knew it. It’s no
big deal. It’s a normal reaction,” said Griffin, sitting on the deck of
her mountaintop home in floral dress and orange blazer. On the lapel was a
miniature Ten Commandments tablet.
In Griffin’s mind, there was no mistaking the intent of
“There was nothing wrong with what they did. The
resolution was, in so many words, to re-criminalize sodomy,” said Griffin,
one of the few spectators to witness the motion.
“They should have stood their ground, absolutely. They
would have been held up as a model county throughout the whole country.”
Even though she disagrees with the rescinding order,
Griffin said she has faith in the men.
“These are not wild-eyed men. I’ve never seen a finer
commission. It’s a good bunch of men,” she said.
“They laughed about the vote, I guess you’ve heard
that,” Griffin added, referring to the audiotape of Fugate’s motion and
the frequent chuckling of commissioners that followed.
“Well sure, that’s what we do, we laugh at those
people,” she said.
Pastor Justice said that Griffin has a right to her
opinion, but he believes the majority of Rhea County residents do not support
“We’ve got to avoid confrontation on a hostile level.
Prayer is a big part of that,” he said.
The pastor said a verse from Psalms 85 comforts him as he
approaches the gay rally.
“Mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and
peace have kissed each other,” he recalled from memory.
“That’s my prayer, that we can see the redemptive
work of Christ take place and we can show the entire nation that we are a
community of genuine faith who wants to live it.”
All about understanding
Even if the motion that rocked this town hadn’t been
taken back, Kristi Bacon said, she is still glad to live here.
“I’m not sorry I moved here. It’s a nice
comfortable town, basically. The majority of the people are nice. Where I’m
from you don’t get a lot of that, a lot of politeness toward anybody,” she
said, recalling her days in Pennsylvania.
“There’s been no problem at all,” she said.
Aside from the veiled threats of a few gay hate groups
that may or may not try to interrupt Saturday’s event, Bacon said, locals
have been supportive of the rally. Most downtown businesses do not plan to
close and, in fact, are hoping for customers.
Bacon is aware of the local ministerial association’s
efforts to “embrace the person, not the sin.”
“That’s fine. I’m not trying to change them. I know
that’s not possible. Just like they’re not going to be able to come up to
me and try to change me to be straight.
“I was talking to a reverend the other day and he was
talking about starting a gay and lesbian Bible study here in Dayton. I thought
it was a cool idea. It depends on your religion and what you believe and
don’t believe. The way I see it, only God can judge me,” she said.
“All we can do is try to help them understand a little
bit more. That’s what we’re all about, understanding one another.”
DeGeneres may attend
Organizers of the Gay Day in Rhea say the event will
feature volleyball tournaments, entertainment and speeches. It runs 10 a.m.-8
p.m. Saturday in Dayton, which is on Eastern time, at Point Park.
It might also feature an appearance by actress and talk
show host Ellen DeGeneres. The Rhea County Sheriff’s Department said a man
identifying himself as being with a Nashville personal-security firm indicated
DeGeneres would be there. Calls and e-mails to her publicist and agent in
California were not answered. The event’s primary organizers, Kristi Bacon
of Dayton and Gary Giddings of Texas, would neither confirm nor deny that she
According to Chief Deputy Johnny Argo of the Sheriff’s
Department, officers around Point Park will include about 50 of his
department’s officers, representatives of the Tennessee Highway Patrol and,
on the water, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. The Hamilton County
Sheriff’s Department also will assist.
“We’ll be checking all bags for weapons and alcohol.
There’ll be no alcohol at all,” Argo said.
“My main concern is for the safety of everyone. We
don’t know what to expect. We’ll prepare for the worst and down-step it as
Godly Heritage march
At least one counterprotest is anticipated, before the
The Rev. Franklin Raddish, founder and general director
of the Washington, D.C.-based Capitol Hill Independent Baptist Ministries, is
holding a “march for our American godly heritage,” 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. EST
Friday at the Rhea County Courthouse.
The trial of John Scopes began with the answer to an
advertisement the American Civil Liberties Union placed.
In March 1925, the state had passed the Butler Act, which
prohibited any public school teacher from teaching the theory of evolution.
The ACLU advertised in several newspapers looking for a case to test the
law’s constitutionality, with the promise of free representation to any
teacher who stepped forward.
Several enterprising Daytonians figured if the trial came
to town it would improve the town’s economic situation. The men didn’t
have to look far to find an agreeable teacher. Scopes, a coach who had
substituted once for the biology teacher, was arrested, and a trial was set
The case attracted the top lawyers of the day, William
Jennings Byran, representing the state, and Clarence Darrow, representing
As anticipated, the town received much attention, with
the streets taking on a carnival-like atmosphere. But when the trial ended,
with Scopes found guilty and fined $100, the town remained the sleepy Southern
town it was before.
But the Scopes trial has never been forgotten there. It
left its mark in the form of Bryan College, named after William Jennings
Bryan, who died in Dayton a short time after the trial. Each year in July the
trial is remembered by the presentation of the play it inspired, Inherit the
[Home] [News] [Tennessee]