Last edited: March 27, 2004

Tennessee County Reverses Gay Ban

The Advocate, March 20, 2004

Commissioners in rural, conservative Rhea County, Tenn., never intended to create the “wildfire” of reaction that resulted from a motion to bar gay people, the county attorney said after the board reversed its two-day-old decision. The original vote was meant to show support for the state’s ban on same-sex marriages, county attorney Gary Fritts said Thursday. “They wanted to send a message to our [state] representative and senator that Rhea County supports the ban on same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage is what it was all about,” Fritts said. “There has just been so much misunderstanding about this. It was to stop people from coming here and getting married and living in Rhea County.”

The board voted 8-0 on Thursday to rescind its Tuesday action. The commissioners declined to comment as deputies escorted them to and from the meeting, where they overturned the earlier vote and quickly adjourned. Fritts said he advised the commissioners that they could not bar gays and lesbians from Rhea County or make them subject to criminal charges. The U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down laws regarding same-sex sodomy as a violation of adults’ constitutional right to privacy.

Commissioner J.C. Fugate, who initiated the Tuesday motion, also made the motion to rescind it Thursday. In a discussion about gays and same-sex marriage at the earlier meeting, Fugate had asked the county attorney to find a way to “keep them out of here.” Twelve-year-old Caitlin Kinney, part of a noisy crowd at the courthouse Thursday night, was disappointed by the reversal. The seventh-grader said she doesn’t want homosexuals in the community. “It’s not a Christian thing,” said Kinney, identifying herself as a Baptist.

“I’ve never seen nothing like this,” Fritts said at the Rhea County courthouse, where a jury 79 years ago convicted John Scopes for teaching evolution.

During the Thursday meeting, social worker Esther Jackson, 24, held up a sign reading, “Breed Love, Not Hate.” “I’m just making a statement that I don’t think it’s right,” Jackson said of the Tuesday vote. “It’s just ignorance, is all.”

Rhea County, which is located about 35 miles north of Chattanooga, annually commemorates the 1925 trial at which Scopes, a high school teacher, was convicted of teaching evolution. The verdict was reversed on a technicality, and the trial became the subject of the play and movie Inherit the Wind. In 2002 a federal judge struck down the teaching of a Bible class in Rhea County’s public schools. Fritts said he doesn’t believe the issue will come up again with the commissioners. “I think they got all the publicity they need about it,” he said.

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