Tenn. county reverses call to ban homosexuals

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and William Jennings Bryan battled over the teaching of evolution 79 years ago, eight county commissioners quickly rescinded yesterday an anti-gay motion that had drawn national attention - and ridicule - to Dayton again.

The measure, which the commission passed unanimously Tuesday night, would have banned gays and lesbians from living in Rhea County and allowed prosecution of gays and lesbians for "crimes against nature."

It was sent to the county attorney, who was directed to write a resolution that could eventually become Tennessee state law.

County Attorney Gary Fritts said the commissioners simply had intended to ban same-sex marriage in Rhea County, but the wording of the motion transformed Dayton into the center of an ideological firestorm.

The past 48 hours had brought a sense of deja 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 preacher marched the street, warning of the end of the world.

All day, county officials fielded phone calls from journalists as far away as Australia, refusing to comment with scrupulous good manners and looks of supreme exasperation.

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

Some celebrated. Several shouted, "Coward!"

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. Rhea County Commissioner J.C. Fugate told his fellow commissioners he wanted to discuss the subject of gay marriage, and he 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 U.S. 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."

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. Two years ago, a federal judge ordered teachers to stop teaching Bible classes in the public schools, a practice that dated back 51 years. A longtime local ordinance prohibited any sale of liquor within a mile of a church.

But what burned Dayton into the American imagination was the "Monkey Trial," in which science teacher John Scopes was convicted for teaching evolution in the classroom.

The trial in July 1925 pitted legendary lawyers Clarence Darrow (on the side of Scopes and evolution) against William Jennings Bryan (on the side of the state of Tennessee and creationism). The result was ideological theater that captured the attention of the world.

A state court would overturn the verdict less than two years later.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.