A resolution on the issue was not on the commission’s monthly agenda when the meeting got underway at 9 a.m. with an opening prayer.
It still wasn’t on the agenda moments later as a young woman performed ”Ave Maria“ — which County Mayor Richard Venable introduced as being at the request of Commissioner Joe Herron in honor of it being the Christmas season and ”our celebration of the birth of our savior.“
And then public comment began.
Venable said a dozen people had signed up to speak to the commission, and he thought many wanted to talk about an issue not before the commission.
It didn’t take long for that to change.
Steven Warhurst, of Kingsport, was first to offer public comment. It was Warhurst who had distributed a boilerplate ”resolution on marriage“ to county commissioners at a work session last week.
Warhurst said his goal was persuade commissioners to support the resolution to take a historic stand against ”the supreme court’s judgement that seeks to overturn the traditional and biblical definition of marriage that our lord and savior defends.”
“First of all, we recognize that natural marriage is between a man and a woman,” Warhurst said. “That has been the tradition not only of this culture but of almost every culture in the history of humanity for the past 6,000 years. And we believe to change it know, at the behest or at the request of five unelected men on the supreme court, to force that definition of — what we believe is a perverted definition of marriage —on the American people is contrary to the constitution, contrary to scriptures and unjust. We are going to ask yhou to interpose. To stand between us the people of Sullivan County and the supreme court. And we’re going to ask you to ask the Legislature, the Tennessee General Assembly, to interpose between us and the supreme court’s unjust and lawless judgement.
Warhurst said the U.S. Constitution mentions nothing about marriage.
”We believe the supreme court cannot make law, cannot change law, they are not a legislative body,and they’ve merely issued an opinion,“ Warhust said. ”And we should not submit to that opinion. We’re begging you and asking you to keep them in their place.“
Commissioner Baxter Hood sought recognition to say he would sponsor the resolution.
”You can count on me,“ Hood said.
Larry Ball, said he is a retired Presbyterian pastor.
”For 40 years I’ve teached and preached that Christians should honor their civil magistrates,“ Ball said. ”I have taught several generations that every civil magistrates is a minister of God, to you for good. That’s a quote from Romans (13:4). You all have been elected as civil magistrates and therefore in the technical sense of the word are servants of God, You have the privilege of serving God by representing the people. You owe allegieance to the constitution of the sate of Tennessee and the United States Constitution. The law of the land is who interprets the law and the constitution. In my opinion, you today face is what do you do when the interpretation of the constitution on the federal level directly conflicts with the interpretation of the constitution on the state level.“
”Your allegiance must be to the word of God,“ Ball said.
Pastor Patrick Hines, of Blountville, said dialogues on the same-sex marriage issue often are ”shutdown“ by mention of ”bigotry.“
”Our opposition is anything but blind, it is a righteous judgement based upon divine revelation and the word of God and the plain testimony of the created order, itself,“ Hines said. ”Lord Jesus said in John 7:24, ’do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgement.’ Every law without exception that is enforced by the government is itself a condemnation of certain behaviors. While there is a popular slogan today, ’you cannot legislate morality,’ the fact is there is nothing other than morality that is legislated. Laws exist because certain behaviors are deemed by the state not only to be wrong, but criminal. It is not bigotry to identify certain behaviors as wrong when one has clearly thought out and good reasons for doing so. It is, however, presumptuous and outrageous to attempt to change the very essence of the definition of marriage and of family, in the name of what are quite simply perverted and immoral sexual desires.“
Hines said God defines family as a man and a woman, a husband and a wife in a marriage covenant, where children are in principal a possibility.
”All societies have always recognized this to be the case,“ Hines said. ”Marriage and family have always meant those things. The very nature of the created order itself testifies to these facts. Family and marriage are not words whose definitions can be arbitrarily changed without catastrophic consequences to societies. It is not bigotry to assert truths which are plain and obvious. If the God-ordained institution of marriage is changed to include same-sex couples, our culture will be defenseless against every other form of sexual perversion man’s imagination is able to think of. Putting the proper measures in place to protect our county from same-sex marriage is not bigotry, it is wisdom.“
Travis Olinger, of Blountville, warned that if the supreme court is allowed to get away with this, its members will become emboldened and ultimately ”they will take your guns away.“
”Now is the time to stand up and resist federal tyranny,“ Olinger said.
Joseph Rhymer was last to speak about the issue during public comment, starting out with a ”Merry Christmas.“
”I respect all opinions on the marriage debate,” Rhymer said. “As a person of faith myself, I attend First United Methodist Church in Bristol, I am quite familiar with the arguments that will without doubt will continue in many settings like Sunday school classes and family dinner tables. I request that the Sullivan County Commission not take up a resolution on this matter, for several reasons. Such a resolution would not reflect my views, or the views of many good people I know in Sullivan County. The resolution would have no legal effect, but it would nevertheless serve to be devisivie during the holidays when we should be focused on unity and goodwill. The resolution would also invite negative attention to Sullivan County. We all want more economic opportunities for our family, our friends, our neighbors. And jumping headfirst into a controversial issue doesn’t send the right signal to companies that might be considering locating here.”
Ultimately, a resolution —worded somewhat differently than the boilerplate version brought by Warhurst — was sponsored by Hood and seconded by commissioners: Michael Cole, Sherry Grubb, John Crawford, Mack Harr, Bobby Russell, and Bill Kilgore.
Commissioners Eddie Wiiliams and Pat Shull said it was not an issue in which the commission has a role. Williams voted "no," and Shull passed on the vote. Commissioner Kit McGlothlin was absent. All other members of the 24-member commission voted in favor of the resolution.
Commissioner John Gardner said “This lets Tennessee be Tennessee.”
The Tennessee Equality Project later issued a statement, in which the organization identified Rhymer as a former TEP Tri-Cities committee chair.
“The Tennessee Equality Project condemns the Sullivan County Commission's swift passage of a resolution opposed to marriage equality this morning,” the statement read in part. “The resolution had not been filed as of Friday afternoon. It never appeared online in any Sullivan County government documents posted on the county's website.”
The TEP statement criticized the commission’s action for taking place with no public notice of the issue’s consideration — which allowed little public input.
“ ... the Sullivan County Commission has done a great disservice to the public in denying a full consideration of the issues presented in the resolution,” the statement read. “Instead the commission has rushed the county into encouraging our State Legislature to engage in a lawless, expensive fool's errand of defying the Supreme Court of the United States.”
In September, the Greene County Commission approved a similar resolution opposing same sex marriage.
Greene County's resolution asks state officials to challenge the Supreme Court’s decision which legalized same-sex unions nationwide.