Last edited: March 27, 2004

Tennessee County Rescinds Anti-Gay Motion

Seattle Times, March 19, 2004

By Ellen Barry, Los Angeles Times

DAYTON, Tenn.—In the same tense, humid courtroom where Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan battled over the teaching of evolution 79 years ago, eight county commissioners yesterday quickly rescinded an anti-gay motion that drew more national attention—and some ridicule—to Dayton.

The measure, which the commission had passed unanimously Tuesday night, would have banned gays and lesbians from living in Rhea County. The proposal would have allowed the county to prosecute gays and lesbians for “crimes against nature.”

The motion had been sent to the county attorney, who was directed to write a resolution that eventually could become Tennessee state law. County Attorney Gary Fritts said that the commissioners had intended, simply, to ban same-sex marriage in Rhea County. But when the wording of the motion became public, Dayton became the center of an ideological firestorm.

The past 48 hours had brought a sense of déjà vu to this Bible Belt city of front-porch swings and towering magnolias. In the courtroom, fundamentalist activists spat about sodomites; from a few feet away, college students in dog-collars and black T-shirts yelled back; a street preacher marched back and forth warning of the end of the world.

All day, officials fielded phone calls from journalists from as far away as Australia.

After the vote, which lasted less than five minutes, a gavel came down and commissioners hurried away from the courthouse, leaving a crowd of about 60 milling around in the warm spring evening.

Some celebrated. Several shouted, “Coward!”

“This is the reason God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah,” said Jean Sinclair, 75, who was chatting with friends in a drugstore. “Every nation that’s started this—Babylon, Middle Persia, Rome—they all fell into this sinful way.”

One local man, who opposed the proposal, said the damage has been done: Rhea County, he said, is a “laughingstock.”

“They kicked a hornet’s nest,” said Jerry Morgan, 58, a house painter. “They think they can say a few words and the hornets will go away. But the hornets are in the air.”

The commission had met Tuesday to discuss budget appropriations and surplus property. J.C. Fugate told fellow commissioners that he wanted to discuss gay marriage, and dictated a motion that read, “those kind of people cannot live in Rhea County, or abide in Rhea County, if caught, they should be tried for crimes against nature.”

The effort was “blatantly unconstitutional,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee American Civil Liberties Union. The Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in 2003.

“I’ve seen a lot of things, but I’ve never heard of an effort by an elected body to try to prohibit a group of people from living in their community,” Weinberg said.

Rhea County is one of Tennessee’s most devout and conservative. It has a population of 28,000 and is in the southeast corner of Tennessee, about 30 miles north of Chattanooga.

Local leaders have not been afraid to challenge state or federal law. A federal judge two years ago ordered teachers to stop teaching Bible classes in public schools, a practice that dated back 51 years. A longtime local ordinance prohibited any sale of liquor within one mile of a church.

But what burned Dayton into the American imagination was the so-called “Monkey Trial,” in which science teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in the classroom. The trial in July 1925 pitted legendary lawyers Darrow (on the side of Scopes and evolution) against Jennings Bryan (on the side of the state of Tennessee and creationism). The result was ideological theater that captured the attention of the world.

The heat and crowds were so oppressive that the judge moved the trial outdoors into the courtyard, where thousands watched. In the end, the jury deliberated less than 10 minutes before finding Scopes guilty. A state court would overturn the ruling less than two years later—but the case would inspire books, plays and films.

Local residents still roll their eyes at that legacy. The Dayton Best Western features stained-glass monkey decorations, and its bar is called the “Golden Monkey.” The worst, furniture salesman Danny Crabtree said, is the nickname.

“You could get on the CB as far away as New York and you could say, ‘I’m from Monkeytown,’ and they’d know you were from Dayton,” he said.

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