Sullivan County, Tennessee Religious Wars 15 Years Later

by Lewis Loflin

"Sullivan County doesn't lay down for atheists," so says former Commissioner Mike Gonce. This statement in 1998 would launch a simmering debate over church/state separation in Sullivan County, Tennessee. But this is about more than a plaque at the courthouse. Sullivan County Religious Wars was a term coined by the late Steven Phelps, opinion editor of the Bristol Herald Courier. Both the Herald Courier and Kingsport Times-News have called for the plaque to be removed from the beginning. Religion is a favorite topic with the general public in this region.

This was far more complex and looking back 15 years later shows how some things have changed and others haven't. In 2013 the bitter divisions of the 1990s are still here today. I've long ago made my peace with Christians and find myself not so oddly defending them.

Before we get into that let's look at the issues behind this blowup from the 1990s to better understand the other side and my side. As one being threatened with lawsuits by a county government over the issue of free speech I hold no animosity with them today and I got to know some of them and having researched the issues, I wish I'd handled them better. But in the end I won because once people in the community saw two lone people stand up against the overblown Religious Right, then they too were no longer intimidated.

Background

What became the Sullivan County Religious Wars really began with President Clinton. The culture war was in full bloom and the so-called Religious Right had reached its zenith. This sent the secular Left into fits fearing what was really a paper tiger. We even had people like Pat Robertson trying to run for President under the Republican Party banner and Jerry Falwell's presence in the Southern Baptist Convention was over-whelming.

This was a Evangelical Christian backlash against the efforts on the Left to marginalize Christianity and remove it from public discourse. Just as the Left was horrified with the Tea Party in 2008, they were equally horrified with the really defunct today Religious Right. But several incidents brought this to a fever pitch.

The first incident was in 1992 with Ruby Ridge and Randy Weaver. A follower of some nonsense known as Christian Identity he moved his family to a remote cabin in Idaho. Identity is a racist' apocalyptic cult whose followers believe the mythical ZOG (Zionist occupied government)was going to imprison the righteous in FEMA concentration camps and destroy America. They expected black helicopters form the UN to swoop in any day. See Randy "Ruby Ridge" Weaver Christian Hero in Sullivan County.

I met Mr. Weaver and his daughter at a 1999 gun show in Kingsport spouting off about how the government was going to get us and Y2K was going to be the excuse. (After his bungled Y2K nonsense he was never heard of again.)

The ATF wanted to arrest Weaver on what I believe was entrapment for selling a saw-off shotgun. Instead of simply waiting Weaver out after he went home they tried storming his cabin. Nobody is sure what happened, but this resulted in the death of Weaver's son Sammy, his wife Vicki, and Deputy U.S. Marshal William Francis Degan. I believe the ATF and FBI on this were wrong and way out of line and acted in a criminal manner.

The next blowup occurred at Waco, Texas at what many called the "Waco massacre" against a cult called the Branch Davidians. This group had no real history of violence and on the excuse of some child abuse charges a literal Federal army of police, FBI etc. stormed the compound on February 28, 1993. They were met with a storm of gunfire. A later fire engulfed the compound 51 days later when the government once again tried to storm the compound. Many felt the fire was started by the government, but a later commission report said the cult started the fire.

The Government here over-reacted again in my opinion. They could have arrested leader David Koresh at anytime so why storm a compound full of civilians? The ATF claimed they "heard a shot" and opened up with automatic weapons on the compound. Bullets tore through the flimsy walls killing five people, some in their beds, during the initial raid and another 71 died in the fire.

The Clinton Administration's hostility to gun ownership and Christians in general caused a fever pitch of mistrust and fear among many conservatives and Evangelical Christians. This led to the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995 by Timothy McVeigh who was executed for his crime in 2001.

Regardless of the fact that a federal commission ruled that McVeigh and partner Terry Nichols acted alone with no connection to any religious group or so-call "militia", the Left was convinced some massive militia movement involving the Religious Right (that by the way never advocated violence) sent then AG Janet Reno into nightmares.

With all of that boiling in the background we come to Y2K in a region full of religious hotheads in Sullivan County. I'm not sure if Y2K as such was on their minds at the time, but the Southern Baptist Convention under the urging of Falwell and others launches a Ten Commandments campaign and what they felt was to "take back America" for God crusade.

Release Time

The Southern Baptist Convention, which the Sullivan Baptist Association was a member of, had been heavily criticized for other campaigns targeting Jews, Hindus, and Muslims and those they called "cults" such as the Catholics, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. The local SBC was also behind what came to be called "release time" where children would be released from elective classes during school hours to attend off campus religious classes. Why they couldn't do this before or after school befuddles me, I'd had no problem with them even using school facilities (they are taxpayers after all) as long as others had equal access.

Jessica L. Tonn in an article in Education Week; 6/21/2006, Vol. 25 Issue 41, p7 notes the SBC is still promoting Release Time in 2006:

The Southern Baptist Convention has again sidestepped a controversial proposal urging its members to pull their children from public schools, but overwhelmingly adopted two milder resolutions relating to public education in the final hours of its annual meeting.

The first of those calls on school boards to adopt policies that would allow students to leave school for Bible classes during the school day.

In the other resolution, the gathering targeted "the direction of the public school system" by urging Southern Baptist churches nationwide to solicit members to run for school board seats...

So to promote the SBCs "Release Time" proselytizing then by extension one would have to support their religious views. Senator John McCain would refer to them as 'agents of intolerance.'

This was set up as a pilot program and was going before the Sullivan County school board for full approval in early 1998. I met Carletta Sims head of the Atheists of Tennessee in February 1998. She called me up about the Release Time program and wanted to know what t do about. My view then and now is as long as everyone has equal access, no problem. So I suggested we both go before the school board and petition them for our own Release Time programs.

The Sullivan County School Board wasn't having an atheist do anything and they didn't know what to do with me, so the whole program was terminated. One board member was angry at the SBA group over some unspecified threats he got. At the end the Sullivan Baptist Association members looked like they were shock and were silent, but furious. The fury was aimed entirely at Carletta at the time.

The local SBC went to the Sullivan County Commission to get them to pressure the school board into reinstating the program, but excluding both Carletta and myself. The school board refused, then through the Sullivan County Commission focused their attack on Carletta.

Carletta decided to criticize a Ten Commandments posting that had been in neighboring Washington County for about 80 years. This was the last straw for the local Baptists.

At the behest of the local SBA and by extension the national Southern Baptist Convention, Sullivan County approved the hanging of their so-called "American Heritage" plaque.

For on some local background issues see The Christian Right in Sullivan County Tennessee. The original title when I first did the page (and grabbed Sullivan-county.com) in 1998 was the "Christian Reich", which stunned county officials after I and everyone else was refused access to the Courthouse walls.

That was another SBC idea that by surrounding the Ten Commandments with other historical documents they could claim a secular purpose. Federal Courts in Kentucky, Indiana, and other parts of Tennessee later on weren't buying it and ordered a number of them removed.

So I petitioned to hang a plaque in honor school teacher John Scopes of Dayton, Tennessee who went to jail for teaching evolution.

This led to big blowup which was seen on local television between myself and the Commission. I told them to their face they were bigots and by endorsing the SBC they were endorsing their positions on Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, etc. They even stated their disdain for atheists, etc. Mr. Gonce and I both went at it while a horrified County Commission (this was during their public comment period) sat in silence, so Mr Gonce instructs the county attorney Dan Street to look into suing me for slander and libel. They followed right along like sheep.

In Sullivan County at that time they simply wouldn't tolerate public criticism of their little fiefdom. The simple fact is the local peasants were afraid to express anything considered anti-Christian or make any kind of waves. That is the thing to understand in this region is most of the good jobs, or any job at all, was based on "who you know" and that was often by church affiliation or relatives.

They were simply not used to being stood up to in public and in particular on local television. Yes I was little extreme taking them on and some of what I said was unfair, but they had been bullying people for decades and ran the County like a private social club centered around their churches. They made it clear they were going to throw their full weight at anyone causing them grief. And grief I caused them.

What they threatened to launch was called a "SLAPP suit" or 'Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation' designed by silence critics and activists. They simply had no case and Mr. Street told them that more or less a month later, but worded it as hanging threat to shut me up. A retired circuit court judge from New Jersey took my case pro-bono and sent them a letter informing them they were violating my right to free speech and he hoped we wouldn't end up in court over it.

Fortunately for both sides we all backed from this threatening to sue each other nonsense because nobody wins those things. At this point it was a stalemate. Because of the controversy I created and over others wanting to hang plaques in the courthouse, they concocted formal procedures designed on paper to allow others to petition for a plaque, but locked me out as no longer a resident of the county. In 15 years nobody else has been able to place a plaque either.

The following pages and editorials tell the rest of the story. Note that time citizens do stand up against both the Christian Right etc. in Sullivan County because Mrs. Sims and I confronted them in public. See below for the dedication fiasco.

Update: Because of the extreme antics of radical secularists, and the fact no harm has come from the Sullivan County plaque, it's my position as of 2008 to just leave it hanging. In fact, it deserves to stay.

Quoting the Kingsport Times-News (1-18-2004) on comments by Sullivan County Tennessee attorney Dan Street on the Ten Commandments religious plaque placed in the Sullivan County, Tennessee courthouse,

"It seems clearer and clearer and clearer that we are promoting a particular religion, and that's a violation of the Constitution. The Constitution is the one document that protects minorities, and just because most people feel the Christian faith or the Jewish faith is the right faith, that doesn't mean they have a right to impose it on everyone else.

Plenty of Christians and Jews who may follow the Ten Commandments, but don't believe they should be displayed in public buildings. Most of the time, however, those people don't come forward with their opinion because they are afraid of being chastised. People think if you want the Ten Commandments down you're an atheist, and that's just not true.

Plaque Hanging a Fiasco

"Two Protest at Plaque Ceremony" was the headline 12/13/99 from the Bristol Herald Courier. What they never expected was Carletta Sims and myself would have the guts to stand against them in public. To call the "The American Heritage Display" and to equate the Ten Commandments with with Declaration of Independence is insulting and exclusionary on its face. As the press reported from Blountville,
While about 35 people gathered inside the old Sullivan County Courthouse Sunday afternoon for the dedication of a Ten Commandments plaque, two protesters complained they could not go inside. Carletta Sims, a Hawkins County atheist, and Lewis Loflin, a deist from Bristol Virginia, carried placards in protest of the "private" ceremony in a public building...

The American Heritage Documents display, which includes the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, was placed on a courthouse wall by 'the Sullivan Baptist Association, a group of 30 Kingsport-area Southern Baptist churches. The County Commission authorized placement of the plaque in the courthouse last year.

All of the costs were borne through donations collected by the association, and the plaque was installed earlier this month. "These documents contain the founding principles of our country. They enshrine our freedoms," said Ann Bennett, the event's organizer and the Southern Baptist Association's director of Christian education.

Outside, Sims hoisted a placard that proclaimed the plaque's placement in a public building a violation of the separation of church and state. And Loflin said he. was protesting because he was denied equal access when the county rejected his proposal to also erect a display in honor of Dayton, Tenn., school teacher John Scopes, who was tried in the 1920s for teaching evolution.

Sims and Loflin claimed county Sheriffs Deputy Paul Taylor told them not to go into the private ceremony, but Taylor denied that. Sims said she went into the building and took a photograph of the plaque before many people had arrived and that Taylor later told her not to go past the steps leading to the front door.

Taylor, however, said he merely told Sims and Loflin that County Commissioner Marvin Hyatt of Piney Flats had an invitation to the event. No one was challenged as uninvited at the door, and two doors were propped open before the event began. Sims and Loflin said they also read media accounts of a news release from Bennett that indicated the ceremony was private. Bennett said no one was turned away...

"It (the Ten Commandments) represents a lot of the reasons this country was founded," Morel said of the plaque. We felt like this was what the majority of residents in Sullivan County wanted."

Bennett, Morrell, Hyatt and Mayes said they are not concerned about potential lawsuits, which may be filed by the American Civil Liberties Union or Loflin. "We are doing a perfectly legal presentation," Bennett said after the ceremony. "We'll let the ACLU worry about it. We're not going to."

Steve Phelps of the Bristol Herald Courier blew up over this nonsense:

'Private' event in 'public' building?

There seems to be some confusion about the meaning of the words "private" and "public."

"It's private but not closed," Ann Bennett of the Sullivan Baptist Association said Sunday of an SBA-sponsored ceremony to dedicate an American Heritage Documents plaque at the Sullivan County Courthouse, a decidedly "public" building.

The plaque includes the Ten Commandments, and two area residents who came to voice opposition on constitutional grounds claimed they were denied entry into the event.

Perhaps Bennett did not want the dedication disrupted. To be sure, she didn't want the entire population of Sullivan County to show.

"I can't provide refreshments for 150,000 people," she told a reporter.

No matter the reason, her comment came off as exclusionary, and for county officials to endorse a "private" function in a "public" building serves only to bolster claims by critics that the county is pandering to a particular segment of the population -- fundamentalist Christians.

The courthouse doors were swung open as the dedication ceremony began, but Carletta Sims, an atheist from Hawkins County, and Lewis Loflin of Bristol Virginia, a deist, remained outside on a sidewalk.

"It represents a lot of the reasons this country was founded," county Commissioner Randy Morrell said in praise of the plaque, which also includes the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

Perhaps the SBA and county officials should not so quickly forget that part about citizens' right to assemble, especially since it's supposed to be everyone's courthouse.

The Kingsport Times-News also confronted the County Attorney Dan Street on this issue. See The County Attorney's Interview.

Printed Kingsport Times-News June 30, 2005

Time to take down the hate plaques

The Supreme Court decision on religious documents and pandering to religious bigots is final. The religious hate plaques in Sullivan, Johnson and Greene counties should come down. The extensive public record and press statements by Sullivan officials and residents proves the intent was not only unconstitutional, but un-Christian as well by reducing God's words to a cheap political issue.

Six years ago I warned them to either open the walls for all to hang plaques and treat everyone equally or face the very decision the court handed down Monday. This resulted in legal threats after I accused them of pandering to religious extremists like Jerry Falwell and the Southern Baptist Convention. Police greeted me the day the plaque was placed in a public building during a public event. It was open to fundamentalists only. This was after they concocted a ridiculous plaque approval procedure for the sole purpose of denying equal access.

Sullivan County Attorney Dan Street found out what kind of fanatics he was dealing with. His honorable name got dragged through the mud for doing his job by warning the arrogant Sullivan County Commission they weren't above the law. The sad part is this represents a minority that only abuses the Christian faith for political gain.

Not every Bible-believing Christian is an ignorant bigot, nor is everyone opposing the Ten Commandments in public buildings an atheist or devil worshiper. Many atheists are decent people too. Nobody should fear being attacked over their religious beliefs be they Christian, atheist or otherwise. There's plenty of abuse on both sides and it must stop. Let's end this strife and bring the plaques down.

Lewis Loflin
Bristol, VA.

History of intolerance

TriCities.com July 3, 2005

The June 27 Supreme Court decision has doomed the religious hate plaques in Kentucky and Tennessee. Seven years ago, I warned the Sullivan County Commission to treat everyone equally in hanging a plaque or face this very outcome. They have only themselves to blame. Sullivan officials have left an unmistakable trail of their intent to promote an intolerant brand of Christianity at odds with the majority of Christians solely for political gain.

This started in 1997. Rather than granting equal access to all faiths, the school board dropped its release time program after I and atheist Carletta Sims asked to set up our own programs. This sent the fundamentalists screaming to the County Commission, which attempted (and failed) to overrule the school board.

Former Commissioner Mike Gonce then proclaimed his famous quote, "Sullivan County doesn't lay down for atheists."

I was threatened with legal action for confronting the Commission, my job was threatened and my disabled wife got death threats at home. Sims also got death threats and was fired from her job for her religious beliefs, but she prevailed in court against her former employer. Police greeted us when we tried to peacefully attend the "public" plaque dedication in a public building in December 1999.

This atmosphere of intimidation is aimed at the whole community. Quoting Sullivan County attorney Dan Street, whose good name got attacked just for doing his job, "Plenty of Christians and Jews ... (don't) ... believe they should be displayed in public buildings. Most of the time, however, those people don't come forward with their opinion because they are afraid. ... "

When even Christians are afraid of some Christians, something is wrong. Let's end the fear and remove the plaques.

Lewis Loflin
Bristol, VA.

Back to Sullivan County Religious Wars



God protect me from your followers

Ten Commandments display Sullivan County Courthouse
Ten Commandments display Sullivan County Courthouse
Blountville, Tennessee

Quoting the Kingsport Times-News (1-18-2004)
Sullivan County Tennessee attorney Dan Street on the Ten Commandments,

"It seems clearer and clearer and clearer that we are promoting a particular religion, and that's a violation of the Constitution. The Constitution is the one document that protects minorities, and just because most people feel the Christian faith or the Jewish faith is the right faith, that doesn't mean they have a right to impose it on everyone else.

Plenty of Christians and Jews who may follow the Ten Commandments, but don't believe they should be displayed in public buildings. Most of the time, however, those people don't come forward with their opinion because they are afraid of being chastised. People think if you want the Ten Commandments down you're an atheist, and that's just not true.

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