MAIDEN, N.C. -- After having originally denied a request from marchers who want to use county facilities this weekend to stage a protest against a Maiden preacher s anti-gay sermon, Catawba County officials announced late Thursday that they have granted permission for the assembly to take place on the grounds of the Justice Center.
Organizers of the protest had originally predicted several hundred marchers would show up Sunday outside the Providence Baptist Church to protest against the Rev. Charles Worley, who said in a sermon that gays should be put behind electrified fences.
But national attention, including a mention on Anderson Cooper s CNN show, swelled estimates to between 1,500 and 2,000. Because of safety concerns organizers decided to move the protest, and asked that it be held on the grounds of the Catawba County Justice Center in Newton, about 12 miles away.
County officials initially denied the request, citing county codes governing public use of grounds and facilities. Provisions included completing an application 14 days prior to the date of the proposed use, a requirement that a group making the request must have been in existence at least one year, and proof of insurance.
Protesters wanted the requirements waived, saying they re not an organized group -just concerned citizens coming together for a cause. They even asked for help from the American Civil Liberties Union.
We want to peacefully and respectfully practice our First Amendment rights, said protest organizer Laura Tipton, 24, of Hickory. We aren t a specific group or organization. All we want is the use of the grounds a safe place. We re asking for cooperation from the county.
Catawba County Attorney Debra Bechtel, who earlier said the county was firmly committed to citizens rights of peaceable assembly, released the following statement on behalf of the county late Thursday evening:
For years, Catawba County has had an ordinance governing the public use of grounds and facilities that has served the best interests of the community. This ordinance has ensured public safety, protected public property, and insulated taxpayers from undue liability and risk. Today, Catawba County received an application for public use of the lawn of the Catawba County Justice Center for the purpose of assembly on Sunday, May 27, 2012. This application raised questions regarding the constitutionality of the existing regulation, specifically the 14-day requirement for applications to be received in the County Manager's Office. Catawba County has always striven to uphold the First Amendment rights of free speech and peaceable assembly. After receiving the citizen's application today, the County consulted with constitutional law experts. Following significant discussion and analysis, and in the interest of demonstrating appropriate respect for the ideals embedded in the Constitution, Catawba County has chosen to grant permission for the assembly this Sunday. The issues raised have given the County the opportunity to examine the existing regulations, and in the coming weeks staff will be working on creating a revised ordinance that ensures balance between the community's significant interests and the exercise of first amendment freedoms.
The planned protest is in response to a Mother s Day sermon by Worley, who called for gays and lesbians to be placed in a type of concentration camp.
A video of the sermon hit the Internet, stirring a whirlwind social media controversy.
Worley, 71, suggested building a large fence, 100 or 150 miles long, so lesbians would be put in one area and the queers and the homosexuals in another and have that fence electrified so they can t get out.
The Observer hasn t been able to contact Worley for a response. But members of his church have defended him. On Tuesday, congregation member Joe Heafner told the Observer Worley s comments were taken out of context and that he s a caring and loving person.
Church member Geneva Sims said Worley had every right to say what he said about putting them (gays and lesbians) in a pen and giving them food... the Bible says they are worthy of death. He is preaching God s word.
Worley s comments have been rejected by some Christians.
On Thursday, Melissa Lilley, communications director of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, noted that neither Worley or his congregation is affiliated with the convention, which is comprised of Southern Baptist churches. Providence Road is an independent Baptist church.
The leadership of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina does not support or agree with his (Worley s) comments, Lilley said. We value the lives, and souls, of all men and women and desire to see every person come to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respected; as this is the expectation that Jesus has established in the Bible for all who follow him.
The Charlotte Observer's Joe DePriestcontributed to this report.