Tenn. County Reverses On Gay Ban

gay marriage amendment capitol CBS/AP

The county that was the site of the Scopes "Monkey Trial" over the teaching of evolution Thursday reversed its call to ban homosexuals.

Rhea County commissioners took about three minutes to retreat from a request to amend state law so the county can charge homosexuals with crimes against nature. The Tuesday measure passed 8-0.

It was a "loud and boisterous" meeting, Chattanooga Times-Free Press reporter Sean McCombs told CBS Radio News.

"When [the commissioners] came into the room, there were boos and cheers. There were people holding signs," he said. The room was packed. There were people lined up along the back wall of the courtroom, and as they left, they were escorted by the sheriff's department."

County attorney Gary Fritts said the initial vote triggered a "wildfire" of reaction. "I've never seen nothing like this," he said Thursday.

"I've gotten lots of e-mails of people not only in Rhea County but all over the country, really thinking this is not a very good idea for the commissioners to do," said McCombs. Some of them had said [the commissioners] are bigots and hypocrites."

But Fritts said it was all a misunderstanding.

"They wanted to send a message to our (state) representative and senator that Rhea County supports the ban on same-sex marriage," he said. "Same-sex marriage is what it was all about. It was to stop people from coming here and getting married and living in Rhea County."

Not that the issue of banning homosexuals didn't arise.

"I'm not saying it wasn't discussed," Fritts said. "Sometimes you had five or six people talking."

Fritts said he advised the commissioners they cannot ban homosexuals or make them subject to criminal charges. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 struck down Texas' sodomy laws as a violation of adults' privacy.

Fritts said he doesn't believe the issue will come up again.

"I think they got all the publicity they need about it," he said.

All of the commissioners declined to comment Thursday.

Social worker Esther Jackson, 24 — one of 300 people who attended Thursday's meeting — held a sign reading: "Breed Love, Not Hate."

"It's just ignorance is all," she said of Tuesday's vote.

But 12-year-old Caitlin Kinney, attending the meeting with her mother, said she supported the commissioners' initial vote.

"I think they should go further, try to see if they can ban them," she said. "It's not a Christian thing."

The politically conservative county holds an annual festival commemorating the 1925 trial at which high school teacher John T. Scopes 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."

Rhea County was also in the news a few years ago.

"There's a local Christian college, Bryan College, in the community, and they were teaching bible classes in Rhea County schools, after school," said McCombs. "Anonymous people sued the school system and the school system fought it all the way to a district federal court judge, and lost."
  • Francie Grace

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