Rhea County, Tenn., commissioners unanimously voted to ask state lawmakers to introduce legislation amending Tennessee's criminal code so the county can charge gay men and lesbians with crimes against nature. "We need to keep them out of here," said Commissioner J.C. Fugate, who introduced the motion. County attorney Gary Fritts also was asked by Fugate to find the best way to enact a local law barring gays and lesbians from living in Rhea County. Commissioners asked Fritts to bring a resolution requesting the ban to next month's commission meeting for another vote. Fugate said he offered the crimes against nature measure, which wasn't on the agenda, because of recent national and state events concerning gay marriage. There was little discussion before the 8-0 vote, and commissioners never discussed the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down Texas's sodomy law and affirmed adults' constitutionally protected right to private sexual conduct.
Matt Nevels, president of the Chattanooga chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said he knows of gay men and lesbians and their parents who live in Rhea County. "That is the most far-fetched idea put forth by any kind of public official," Nevels said. "I'm outraged." Fugate's motion prompted some spectators at the commission hearing to applaud. Three of those who spoke before Fugate introduced his motion advocated for prayer in schools and denounced drinking alcohol and county zoning. The Rhea County action came after the state senate judiciary committee voted 7-1 Tuesday for a bill that would prohibit legal recognition of civil unions and domestic partnerships for gay couples in Tennessee. Same-sex marriages already are prohibited in the state.
Rhea County, located about 30 miles north of Chattanooga, is among the most conservative in Tennessee. It holds an annual festival commemorating the 1925 trial that ended in the conviction of John T. Scopes on charges of teaching evolution, a verdict thrown out by the Tennessee supreme court on a technicality. The trial later became the subject of the play and movie Inherit the Wind. In 2002 a federal judge ruled unconstitutional the Rhea County school board's Bible Education Ministry, a class taught in the public schools by students from a Christian college.