Last edited: May 08, 2004

Scopes Trial Site Hosts Gay Rights Fight

Washington Post, May 5, 2004

By Bill Poovey

DAYTON, Tenn.—The Tennessee courthouse that hosted the Scopes Monkey Trial over the teaching of evolution nearly 80 years ago is the site of another furor after local officials voted to ban gays.

Commissioners in rural Rhea County quickly rescinded the vote in March, declaring they were only trying to show support for a statewide ban on gay marriage. But their action is drawing a new generation of protesters to the courthouse where high school teacher John Scopes was convicted in 1925 of giving lessons on evolution.

Competing demonstrations are planned this week—one a courthouse march Friday against same-sex marriage and civil unions, and a Gay Day on Saturday that is expected to draw 3,000 people to a park for a picnic and entertainment.

“God condemns homosexuality very, very strongly,” said the Rev. Franklin Raddish, an organizer of the protest march.

Kristie Bacon, coordinator for Gay Day, said her event is not about “trying to make heterosexuals accept us.”

“I am just trying to help them understand more,” she said.

The issue flared when commissioners discussed gays and same-sex marriage at a meeting. Commissioner J.C. Fugate asked the county attorney to find a way to “keep them out of here.”

The board voted March 16 to endorse a resolution calling for a ban on gays and an amendment to state law that would allow the county to charge homosexuals with “crimes against nature.”

Two days later, the board voted 8-0 to rescind its action. Commissioners quickly adjourned and declined to comment as deputies escorted them out of the meeting.

County Attorney Gary Fritts said he advised commissioners they could not ban homosexuals or make them subject to criminal charges. The U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down laws on homosexual sodomy as a violation of adults’ privacy.

“There has just been so much misunderstanding about this,” Fritts said at the time. “It was to stop people from coming here and getting married and living in Rhea County.”

Commission Chairman Terry Broyles said he hopes to move past this “unfortunate situation.” But the protests and national attention are not going away.

It was here, about 35 miles north of Chattanooga, that Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in a trial that attracted protesters and reporters from all over the country to the famously muggy, crowded courtroom.

The verdict was thrown out on a technicality. The trial became the subject of the play and movie “Inherit the Wind.”

The courthouse, now air-conditioned, remains much as it was in 1925, and the courtroom is still used. The building also features a museum dedicated to the trial, and the community holds an annual festival commemorating the proceedings.

Diana Cunningham, a lesbian who lives in nearby Spring City, said the commission’s vote “meant they were going to ban me.” She plans to attend the Gay Day event.

“I thought, `OK, I’ve got to stand up for this now,’” she said. “This can’t just blow over. I am those people, and I don’t hurt anyone,” she said.

Chip Pendergrass, president of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, said the level of tolerance for gays among the city’s 6,200 residents is “no different than any other community.”

“The majority of the people of Dayton are friendly and welcome anybody,” he said. “I guess you have a few who aren’t tolerant.”

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