Rhea County, Tenn., made headlines a couple weeks ago when it sought to pass laws to arrest the county’s homosexual residents and run them out of town. Ex-gay activists saw the news, and found an opportunity to promote a kinder, gentler form of discrimination and prejudice.

Rhea County and its county seat of Dayton are infamous for the 1925 Scopes trial against a teacher who dared to teach evolution. But today they are better-known among Tennesseans for the annual Strawberry Festival. The strawberries are grown locally.

In the late 1980s, I visited Dayton twice to help obtain legal status for the county’s immigrant strawberry pickers. I perceived a hint of bigotry in the town — the sort of immorality in which predominantly Protestant farmers profited from the labor of poorly paid, uninsured, predominantly Catholic immigrants. But I saw no more bigotry or racial oppression than I might find in any rural locality where the population is 89 percent white, only 11 percent have completed college, and 14 percent are unemployed.

Fast forward to April 2004:

Hoping to capitalize on the county’s re-emergence as a national symbol of backwardness, on Apr. 28 Exodus ex-gay leaders Alan Chambers and Randy Thomas sought to teach county residents a kinder, gentler sort of bigotry:

Alan and Randy will bring psychological, spiritual, legislative and practical insight on the topic of homosexuality to varying groups in Rhea County, Tennessee.  On Wednesday April 28, 2004, Exodus will seek to help Rhea county residents discover the balance of what is good for community, defend personal convictions with integrity and maintain a realistic approach to those dealing with or affected by homosexuality.  Speaking engagements cover the entire day: it will be very busy.  Alan and Randy would certainly appreciate your prayers.

Exodus opposes violence against homosexual people — but it encourages discrimination, including excommunication, job termination and eviction. Discrimination has the same effect, of course, as Rhea County’s earlier course of action: Both forms of harassment compel gay and gay-tolerant people to move elsewhere.

Should we pray that Exodus is successful in encouraging the Dayton area to be more creative in making life difficult for homosexual Tennesseans?

Probably not.

On this particular occasion, Ex-Gay Watch will pray only that Chambers and Thomas learn the Golden Rule of Christianity and other faiths: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Do unto others. Treat evolution teachers, migrant workers, and gays in the same manner that you seek to be treated.

Addendum, May 10, 2004: Four hundred people attended Gay Day in Dayton on May 8.

The Nashville Tennessean notes that two antigay religious activists were arrested for attempting to disrupt the event, while an antigay woman was welcomed by attendees.

In its CitizenLink e-mail message today, Focus on the Family complained that two Christian men were arrested. But Focus on the Family declined to inform its readers that:

  • the Gay Day crowd peacefully interacted with the antigay woman, Norma Ruehling of Dayton;
  • According to CNN, Police Chief Kenneth Walker said the two arrested men among a group of about 10 "out-of-towners coming in here wanting to cause trouble."
  • According to another article in The Tennessean, a group of 35 antigay preachers, many from out of town, had already rallied in Dayton on May 7 to voice their hatred of homosexuality. Numerous local Christians left the rally in disgust, and — according to the antigay Baptist Press — a local group of evangelicals courted by Exodus International distanced itself from the hate rally.

Addendum, June 9, 2004: CNN reports that, for 51 years, Rhea County officials have been using the public schools to hold weekly Bible classes in which the book is taught, not as literature or as one of several religions, but as "religious truth." A federal appeals court has upheld a ruling that the classes are unconstitutional.

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