The Sullivan County Commission, under pressure from local Christian fundamentalists, has de-facto declared that Christians only are welcome in this rural community buried in central Appalachia. While this is bad enough in itself, there is an even more sinister aspect to the term "Christian" as used by these people: Catholics, Mormons, and non-Christians are considered in league with Satan.
The fact is that fundamentalist Protestants are considered the only real Christians, while all others are considered inferior or worse. The local fundamentalists promote a type of religious purity that sounds a lot like the racial purity poison of Adolph Hitler. Simply put, there is no difference between those that hate others over racial differences and those that hate others for religious reasons. Before one can understand the reason all of this is happening, let's look into the history of a region that remains a Ku Klux Klan stronghold.
Before I begin, let me be clear on one thing: This is not an attack on the Christian faith or the majority of decent Christian people of this nation. Most modern Christians adhere to a live and let live policy while extremist factions (mainly among Protestants), use the Bible as an excuse for their hatred of others. Fundamentalist religion of any kind is anti-God, anti-American, and is an insult to the teachings of Jesus.
Sullivan County is located in upper East Tennessee and borders Scott and Washington counties in Virginia. The area is also known as the Tri-cities; it consists of the cities of Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol. Kingsport is the home of Eastman Chemical, the regions largest employer, Johnson City is the home East Tennessee State University, and Bristol is the home of Bristol Motor Speedway. The VA/TN state line divides Bristol: Half lies in Sullivan County, Tennessee, the other half is in Washington County, Virginia. Between these three small cities is Sullivan County; the whole region is commonly known as the Bible Belt.
Recent economic problems in the region are fueling social unrest. The almost total collapse of the Virginia coal industry, combined with endless plant closings, have driven thousands into poverty while thousands more have moved out. According to an article in the Bristol Herald Courier, over 30,000 people between the ages of 18 and 45 have left the area, while almost 40,000 retirees have moved in. The area has a poverty/unemployment index of over 20% in Sullivan County and a staggering 50% or more in some surrounding counties.
The huge influx of retirees only makes matters worse by driving up the cost of everything (they live on income from outside of the area, not the local economy), while most working people live off jobs that pay only $5-6.00 per hour. Higher rents, taxes, etc. have made paying bills utter hell for working families while retirees don't care as long as someone serves their food at local restaurants. The business community actively works to block out higher paying jobs to protect the low-wage tourist and retirement industries. This creates fertile ground for rising divorce rates, child abuse, and the growth of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and fundamentalist churches.
While all Klan members claim they are Christians (usually Southern Baptist), most residents don't support the Klan at all. Unfortunately, both fundamentalist Christians and the KKK support many of the same ideals and it is hard to tell them apart. To get a better idea of what all of this is about, let's take look at recent local history.
About three years ago a rock group called White Zombie made an appearance at Viking Hall in Bristol, Tennessee. Local officials and Christian fundamentalists expressed outrage and with shouts of "Satan", and attempted to block the concert. During the concert, hysterical Christians sat outside in snow and twenty-degree temperatures to protest the event. Crying, praying, and making general asses out of themselves, they harassed the young people while the press turned the whole community into a joke. Rock concerts have been banned in Bristol, while the Klan plays on.
Two years ago local Christian fundamentalists, backed by Pat Robertson's Operation Rescue, picketed a family planning clinic in Bristol, Tennessee. Patrons were subjected to the usual abuse, threats, and attempted violation of their civil rights that Operation Rescue is famous for. Federal court orders would eventually put a stop to the abuse. Local politicians refused again to stand up for their citizens.
In 1997, Jerry Falwell and so-called "Christian Conservatives" seized control of the Southern Baptist Convention. Within days they began the expulsion and removal of moderate and liberal members unless they followed the fundamentalist line of social and religious intolerance. Religious cleansing had begun and even affiliated colleges would soon come under attack. The conversion (meaning persecution) of Jews and Mormons was to be a top goal of the new Southern Baptist leadership.
In November 1998, the new Baptist policy of religious cleansing would reach East Tennessee. The Tennessee Baptist Convention, meeting in Kingsport, voted to strip nearby Carson-Newman College of $2.4 million because it refused to let the Convention pack their board of trustees with religious extremists. Carson-Newman is a fine traditional Baptist College that wasn't about to be dragged into the sewers by Falwell's henchmen. The Sullivan County Commission expressed the usual silence. Unfortunately, not only were churches and colleges targeted for cleansing, but local businesses would also be under attack.
In October 1998, in nearby Marion, Virginia, members of the Blessed Hope Baptist Church picketed a local photography shop. While these people claimed that naked elbows and kneecaps constituted pornography, they harassed customers and handed out leaflets depicting a man shooting at someone. Is someone firing a gun really an appropriate symbol for the Prince of Peace? Whatever happened to clouds and crosses?
In 1998 Sullivan County politicians set out to ruin and shut down two local strip bars. After using everything from ridiculous safety regulations to refusal to issue a sign permit, a local politician finally came out and stated "We will put them out of business." They relented on the sign crap under threats of legal action by the owners. Ironically, the very same kinds of businesses have operated in nearby Johnson City for years with no problems at all. The threat these businesses pose is the fact that they paid more than minimum wage, the real fear in Sullivan County. The legal fight still goes on.
It is sad that the Sullivan County Commission sits in silence as the rights of citizens are violated, the Klan burns crosses in local parks, and fine colleges are stripped of funds by TV preachers. When real threats to the community come along, they bravely get off their sorry butts and prove that they won't be pushed around.
Mrs. Sims, head of the Tennessee Atheist Organization, asked to start a release time program for atheism. She would be joined by Lewis Loflin, head of the TN/VA chapter of the World Union of Deists, in requesting equal access to the children out of fear of cult activity among some Christian groups. As they say, "The sh-- hit the fan."
In September 1998, the Sullivan County School Board voted to end Released Time. Mr. O'Dell, the school superintendent, informed the board that they would have to allow other faiths equal access or violate the Constitution and be open to lawsuits for religious discrimination. One board member gasped and asked, "You mean we have to let in Catholics, Mormons, and Buddhists?" Another board member lashed out at the fundamentalists for some kind of threatening letter he got for abstaining on an earlier vote. Rather than let atheists, Deists, Mormons, and Catholics have equal access, the board voted 5-2 to end Released Time. Local fundamentalists expressed outrage: They were going to prove who runs Sullivan County!
Within days of the school board decision to end Released Time, fundamentalists went before the Sullivan County Commission demanding that they reinstate the program. The school board informed the Commission that they had no legal authority over them and stood by their decision. The Commission, under pressure from raving fundamentalists across the county, needed an easy target: Mrs. Sims would be that target.
The Commission passed Resolution 30, which allows local the fundamentalist Baptists to hang the Ten Commandments in the county courthouse. By hanging it beside the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, the Commission claims that it is only a "historical document" and has nothing to do with Mrs. Sims. That's the official line, not what the cowardly Commission is saying to everybody else. They keep implying that Baptists are the only real Americans and claim that only Baptists died for our freedom. What about the thousands of Catholics, Mormons, Jews and even atheists that died for our great nation? Attacking one lone woman is easier local fundamentalist hate groups.
"Sullivan County does not lay down for atheists," so says Commissioner Mike "Boss Hog" Gonce in the Bristol Herald Courier. Isn't it odd that the Sullivan County Baptist Association is handling all of the details and is acting as a "clearinghouse" for the display? Nobody is buying the historical documents crap, and even the local press refers to it as the Ten Commandments resolution. This is nothing more than a violation of separation of church and state when a government body backs a group that holds most Americans in contempt and scorn. It gets even worse as others have asked to hang "historical documents" and have been refused because of their religion. This is religious discrimination and it is also against the law.
Real Americans unite! God loves us all and our founding fathers of this great nation intended it as land for all of us to live as equals and to have equal access to government. Others have asked permission to hang historical plaques and have been refused because of not being a Falwell Baptist. The Bill of Rights is nothing to banana-republics such as Sullivan County where the Klan does what it wants while local politicians attack their own citizens and actively work to undermine the rights and freedom of others. As an American veteran from a family of veterans, I ask you to write these people and voice your opposition to religious bigotry. If you are a Christian, start to demand that right-wing extremists stop hiding behind the Bible and making the entire Christian community look like fools. If Christians value their freedom, they must value freedom and equality for other faiths or their own freedoms will be lost.