County rescinds gay marriage ban

More than 100 teenagers, several of them from Rhea County, descended on the Rhea County Courthouse Thursday to demonstrate their opposition to the Rhea County Commission's vote to ban homosexuals from Rhea County and to make it a crime for homosexuals to live together in Rhea County. Several students carried signs, posters and banners showing their support for the gay lifestyle, while Jerry Layne from Dunlap, Tenn., displayed signs calling homosexuality a sin. June Griffin of Dayton, an outspoken opponent of homosexuality, engaged several people in debate. Above, Rhea County High School students Brandon, Anna, Faith, Amanda and Christina carry a banner that they said demonstrated their support for human rights and gay pride. (Herald-News photo by John Carpenter)

Rhea Countians found themselves in the glare of the national spotlight Thursday as county commissioners convened for the second time in 48 hours, this time to attempt to defuse a torrent of controversy triggered by an action by the commission on Tuesday night concerning homosexuality. In a scene reminiscent of the 1925 Scopes Trial, hundreds of people assembled on the Rhea County Courthouse lawn Thursday awaiting the arrival of the nine county commissioners following public outcry and outrage over published and broadcast remarks made by County Commissioner J.C. Fugate on Tuesda, attempting to ban homosexuals from living in the county and seeking to reinstate Tennessee's anti-sodomy laws. Fugate's motion was not on the agenda for the regular county commission meeting that night, but some people in the audience applauded when Fugate brought up the subject. Fugate said he offered the motion because of recent events concerning gay marriages throughout the state and nation. His comment was an apparent reference to the flood of gay marriage ceremonies conducted recently in various cities and towns around the country, even when state law prohibited such ceremonies. In addition, the action came hours after the state senate judiciary committee voted 7-1 for a bill that would prohibit legal recognition of civil unions and domestic partnerships among homosexuals in Tennessee. Gay marriages are already prohibited in the state. In an audiotaped statement made during Tuesday night's regularly scheduled county commission meeting, Fugate said: "I would like to make a motion that those kind of people cannot live in Rhea County or abide in Rhea County. If they are caught in Rhea County living together as such that they be tried for crimes against nature." The motion was seconded by Commissioner Ronnie Raper and was followed by a brief discussion with County Attorney Gary Fritts on how best to word and present the motion to state representatives. "You mean we can't adopt a Private Act?" Fugate asked Fritts. "Most Private Acts are administrative in nature; they are not criminal," Fritts responded. As the eight commissioners, Fritts, County Mayor Billy Ray Patton, County Finance Director Brad Harris, members of the press and a handful of spectators listened, the roll was called. Of the nine members of the county commission, eight were present and voted. Commission Chairman Terry Broyles and Commissioners Raper, Tom Davis, Harold Fisher, Bradley Varner, Paul Tallent, Dennis Tumlin and Fugate voted yes on the motion. Absent from the meeting was Commissioner Jimmy Barnes. The following day, after news had spread of the vote, the eight commissioners who voted in favor of the motion and the county attorney said what they thought they were voting to do was to have Fritts draft a resolution supporting Tennessee's proposed ban on gay marriages. "It caught me by surprise. I thought we were voting on a motion to get Gary to bring us a resolution banning gay marriages," Davis said Wednesday. Asked why, if there was confusion over the motion, he did not ask for a clarification, Davis responded, "That's the question I have been asking myself ever since I left the meeting Tuesday night. I have no excuse and I am sorry. There is a battle to be fought, but this is not the way to go about it." Commissioner Dennis Tumlin agreed, saying you cannot legislate morality. "I would never have voted on J.C.'s original motion as presented. My understanding was that we were trying to get something together to give to our representatives in Nashville stating our position on same-sex marriages," Tumlin said. In the wake of Tuesday night's meeting, calls and e-mails from across the country began pouring into County Mayor Billy Ray Patton's office, the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, local businesses, industries and the newspaper, most of them expressing outrage over the commission's action. A special meeting of the commission was hurriedly scheduled for Thursday evening. This time, instead of just a half-dozen spectators, almost 300 people showed up as the eight commissioners were given a police escort into the courthouse amid both cheers and boos. Fugate, who made the initial motion Tuesday night, spoke. "I would like to rescind the motion against homosexual marriage that was made on March 16," Fugate said, as the packed courtroom erupted into cheers and a few hisses. The vote was taken and was 8-0 to rescind the motion. The entire meeting lasted less than five minutes, and commissioners were again escorted from the courtroom as reporters and television camera crews unsuccessfully attempted to get comments from the departing commission members. On the courthouse lawn, the debate continued as many spectators expressed anger that the commission voted, in the words of Commissioner Fugate, "to rescind the motion against homosexual marriage made on March 16." These spectators protested that saying that wasn't the motion approved by the commissioners on Tuesday. "The motion Tuesday was to ban homosexuals from living in the county," said Dayton resident Lisa Brown. An Associated Press reporter complained to Fritts that the commissioners had met in a closed, locked room prior to the special called meeting, calling it a violation of the Sunshine Law. But, according to Fritts, the move was taken as a security measure after several commissioners said they had received threats. By Friday the courthouse lawn had cleared except for several news organizations and a few local citizens, but the aftershocks remained as Patton met with local reporters to issue a statement. The county mayor, who has taken much of the heat despite not having a vote on the county commission, said he is concerned about the impact the issue will have on the county and its residents. "Rhea County folks are among the most caring and giving people you'll find anywhere in the country. "We don't necessarily have to agree with their [gay] lifestyle, but we'd never do anything to discriminate against them," he said. Chris Shackleford can be reached at cshackleford@xtn.net.