Last edited: December 07, 2004

Vote on Gays Brings Dayton New Infamy

The Tennessean, May 2, 2004
1100 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203
Fax: 615-726-8928

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 County Commission.

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 the vote.

“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 legislative body.

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,” she said.

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 March 16.

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 belt line.

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 Bryan College.

“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 terrier, Buddy.

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 setting.

“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 shun?

“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 sexual preference.”

“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 Association’s efforts.

“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 Fugate’s motion.

“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 her views.

“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 would appear.

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 we go.”

Godly Heritage march

At least one counterprotest is anticipated, before the Gay Day.

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.

Scopes background

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 for July.

The case attracted the top lawyers of the day, William Jennings Byran, representing the state, and Clarence Darrow, representing Scopes.

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 Wind.

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