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Jennings Bryan battled over the teaching of evolution 79 years ago, eight county commissioners on Thursday quickly rescinded an antigay motion that drew national attention -- and some ridicule -- to Dayton once more.
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 could eventually become Tennessee state law. County Atty. 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 last 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 talked 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, county officials fielded phone calls from journalists from as far as Australia, refusing to comment with scrupulous good manners and looks of supreme exasperation.
After the vote, which lasted 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 spring 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. J.C. Fugate told his fellow commissioners that he wanted to discuss the subject of 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 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,” Weinberg said.
Rhea County is one of Tennessee’s most conservative. It has a population of 28,000 and is located in the southeast corner of the state, 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 the sale of liquor within a 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 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.
The heat and crowds were so oppressive that the judge moved the trial outdoors into the courtyard, where thousands watched the proceedings. In the end, the jury deliberated less than 10 minutes before finding Scopes guilty. It was a ruling a state court would overturn less than two years later -- but a case that that would go on to inspire books, plays and films.
Those familiar with the trial, though, look back on it largely as a media event. Weinberg recalled that the ACLU scoured the state for a teacher willing to challenge the law. Others said the trial promised publicity for a small, tucked-away section of Tennessee.
“Dayton’s kind of got a reputation for trying to be in the news,” said Danny Crabtree, 49, a furniture salesman. The Scopes trial “was more or less worked up in Robinson’s drugstore.”
People here 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, said Crabtree, 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.
Several residents interviewed before Thursday’s vote said the antigay proposal would cast a pall over Rhea County, discouraging industry from moving in. Others said they had deep, religiously based sympathy for Fugate’s motion.
“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.”
Karen Slikker, the owner of a downtown art store, said she did not support the commission’s proposal. But she said she was distressed about the wave of gay marriages, reasoning that “God prohibited it because it is not good for us.”
“For me, I believe there have to be certain limits on how they impose their lifestyle on us,” she said.
“There’s been a lot of talk about us imposing our lifestyle on them. It works both ways.”