May 292012
Dave Dlouh of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Gary Brown of Hope Mills argue during the protest in Newton. Dlouh and his partner drove 744 miles in 12 hours to attend the rally.

The poster was about 5 feet tall and read, in three lines:




Debra Demske traveled Sunday from Winston-Salem to Newton to protest anti-gay remarks made this month by a Catawba County pastor. She took a marker and scrawled a single word on a sign of her own, then wove through the crowds of protesters gathered along U.S. 321 to reach the man holding the big poster.

She held up her sign — which said “AWESOME” — against his to cover up the word “SIN.” Then she looked at the man, who declined to give his name, and smiled.

It was one gesture in a day of similar gestures that juxtaposed two sides of an issue that has divided North Carolina.

Starting about 9:30 a.m. Sunday, more than 2,000 protesters descended on Newton, a small town of about 13,000 near Hickory. The town is about 12 miles from Providence Road Baptist Church, where Pastor Charles Worley gave a sermon May 13 that suggested gay people should be rounded up, placed in a sort of concentration camp, and left to die.

Sunday’s protest was organized by Appalachian State University student Laura Tipton and backed by a group calling itself Catawba Valley Citizens Against Hate. Most of the protesters supported same-sex marriage and equal rights; about 100 people came to support Worley and to stand against homosexuality.

Tipton, who said she had never attended a protest before Sunday, organized it after seeing a YouTube video of Worley’s sermon.

That sermon, she said, “was a message of hate, a message of intolerance, a message of genocide, and not something we in this community could support.”

“Love and acceptance are two of the most important things you can give to someone else,” Tipton said. “You don’t need to hate somebody just because they’re different.”

The protest was mainly peaceful, though at times the two sides clashed.

One preacher, Billy Ball — who is pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Primrose, Ga. — spoke into a bullhorn, calling out Bible verses and calling on supporters of same-sex marriage to repent.

“God loves you, yes, he does,” Ball called out. “But he does not love your sin. And homosexuality is the most tolerated, petted, pampered sin in the United States of America.”

Law-enforcement officers from across western North Carolina came to monitor the protest; one asked Ball to turn off the bullhorn. When he refused, the officer wrote him a warning citation for violating the town’s noise ordinance.

Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid said Ball’s citation was the only one and that no one was arrested during the protest.

Meanwhile, at Providence Baptist, church members and about 100 visitors from inside and outside the area gave Worley a standing ovation when he approached the pulpit, the Hickory Daily Record reported. A few members stood up from the pews and spoke out in favor of Worley as officers watched.

Brad Cheatham, a member of Ball’s church, said the members of the church drove from Georgia to the protest in Newton — about a five-hour trek — because they believe homosexuality is a sin.

Cheatham held a sign that read: “Sodomites are vile, unnatural, and worthy of death, Romans 1:16-32.”

“It looks like I’m promoting killing homosexuals, but I’m not,” Cheatham said. “It is our responsibility as a saved person to save these sodomites. … There’s no incest pride event, no bestiality pride event, no adultery pride event … homosexuality is right in between incest and bestiality. God didn’t change his mind about that.”

But many of the protesters Sunday said messages such as Worley’s — and Cheatham’s — encouraged hatred and bigotry, not love and tolerance.

Wooten Gough, who grew up in Yadkin County, said he came to the protest because he wanted to prove that “there are messages of inclusivity and equality even in the rural areas of this state.”

Gough, who said he has been gay “since birth,” described Worley’s May 13 sermon as “just another tactic to create fear.”

If you’re gay and “you’re sitting in that church, you’re probably thinking of suicide, or of self-hatred, or you’re thinking you’re never going to come out, ever,” Gough said. “That was me. We’re taught from a very young age to self-hate.”

Still, one couple — lesbians who have been with each other for the past 23 years — said they believe people are becoming more tolerant.

The women — Debbie Byrd and Cathy Sutphin of Hickory — said they came out in the 1970s.

“Not in my lifetime would I ever have thought that I would see this kind of protest in Catawba County,” Byrd said. “And like I told some other young women just now, gay marriage, it might not be legal in my lifetime, but it will be legal in theirs. Right will win.”


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