MOREHEAD, Ky. — As the protesters faced off outside the Rowan County courthouse, one sign held by gay-marriage supporters read, "Law of the Land." Another, held by opponents, read, "Welcome to Sodom and Gomorrah." The amplified voice of a preacher described, in terse but explicit terms, a homosexual act. "Is that a little too graphic for you?" he asked, as if to provoke.
People in this city of 6,800, tucked into the steep foothills of the Cumberland Plateau, have long been accustomed to usually polite disagreement while navigating the crosscurrents of progressive sentiment that emanate from Morehead State University, the public university downtown, and the broader cultural conservatism of Bible Belt Kentucky.
But after the jailing of Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who said her Christian faith mandated that she defy a federal court order rather than issue marriage licenses to gay couples, people here are confronting a question similar to one being faced elsewhere around the country: Is there a road back to the old politesse and grace that have helped this area manage its town-gown tensions for decades? Or does the bitter clash of worldviews reflect an unraveling of whatever it was that once knit disparate people together? "Walking around town now, people are going to smile at you or give the worst look to you," said Chris Thomas, 22, a student at Morehead State who said he was taking the fall semester off. "It's definitely been more tense since this whole thing started. I hope it gets back to normal soon." With Davis in jail, same-sex couples on Friday were able to obtain marriage licenses for the first time, after navigating a media throng and dozens of protesters. Meanwhile, both conservatives and liberals bemoaned that this was the way Morehead was making national headlines.
"This community has suffered from the controversy," said Ben Tackett, 77, a Church of God pastor. "People are viewing Morehead and Eastern Kentucky as a bunch of backwoods, barefoot illiterates, and that's not the case. People are well educated." Much of that can be attributed to Morehead State, where Tackett and his wife, Sue, were trained as educators. The school, which has an enrollment of about 11,000, was born of an effort to stamp out illiteracy and lawlessness in Appalachia.
In the late 1800s, feuding between rival families and post-Civil War political factions made the city of Morehead one of the most unruly places in Kentucky. More than 20 people were murdered or assassinated in a three-year period starting in 1884.
In 1887, the precursor to Morehead State, Morehead Normal School, was established with the help of the Christian Church of Kentucky, with the goal of training teachers and bringing, as a common saying here goes, "a light to the mountains." Today, Morehead is a place where one finds both overt Christian sentiment and space for doubt and different thinking: On the road into town, a sign for White Mobile Home Parks is topped with a cross. The receptionist's desk in the office of Morehead State's president, Wayne D. Andrews, is adorned with a sign quoting the Book of Matthew.
But at CoffeeTree Books, a social hub on Main Street, the spirituality section is stocked with books on tarot, "demons and demonology," and works by the Dalai Lama and atheist Richard Dawkins.
It is also a town of surprises. At Morehead Auto Sales, a used-car dealership, a large sign on the building reads "Wise Men Still Seek Jesus." The owner, Danish Khan, a 33-year-old Muslim, said that when he rented the space last year, the sign was already on the building. He did not see a reason to take it down.
"I mean, we believe in Jesus," he said of his fellow Muslims. "Jesus was one of our prophets." Khan said that when he opened his business, Davis made an extra effort to help him understand the paperwork he needed to manage every time he sold a car. "She's kind of been one of my mentors," he said.
But Khan, who said he approves of gay marriage, said that he disagreed with Davis' defiance of the court order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples after the Supreme Court's decision in June legalized such unions.
Tim Scowden, who is pursuing a master's degree in teaching at Morehead State, said he got to know Davis when he registered to run for local government office last year. "I liked her," he said. "We were on a first-name basis." When Davis made her stand, Scowden, who is gay, wrote her an email, praising her work in the clerk's office, and even her stand on religious principle.
"But there comes a time when it's okay to hoist the white flag and do what has to be done," Scowden wrote. "There's no doubt that the Lord would understand." On Thursday, Scowden, 54, said he wished she had taken his advice. "It's very disappointing," he said.
Gay rights have been a topic of discussion here in the past, generating little heat. In 2013, the city council approved an anti-discrimination ordinance extending protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people after a process that the American Civil Liberties Union described as "devoid of community opposition." In recent days, the Morehead State campus has been polarized by Davis' stand. "On Facebook, all of your friends are like, 'martyr,' or 'villain,' said Dustyn Pruitt, 25, a psychology major.
In the back of CoffeeTree Books Thursday, Samantha Matherly, Jesse Tipton and Sarah Jones, all students, were discussing the situation, with Matherly and Jones arguing that Davis had been picked on by gay-rights activists.
"They could obviously go somewhere else"-- to another county for example -- said Matherly, 21. "But they want her to give them the right."
Jones, 22, said she admired Davis for standing up for her beliefs. "Rosa Parks stood up for herself," she said.
Tipton, 21, interjected: "To me, she's more like the governors who stood in front of the schools back then," he said, adding: "She is a bigot." At a Hardee's fast food restaurant on Friday morning, a crowd of older residents communed over biscuits. Most of them were fervent in their support of Davis.
"I'm also a Christian, and I feel the same way she does," said Charlie Kelly, 65. "I hope Kim wins." "She's suffering now," said Sue Tackett, 78, the pastor's wife, who said she believed that homosexuality was a choice that people could renounce. "But when she stands before the Lord she'll be rewarded." Outside of the courthouse Friday morning, passions rose as a powerful late-summer sun gathered force. Randy Smith, a Freewill Baptist preacher from Morehead, shouted out a passionate sermon to a few dozen protesters, blasting same-sex marriage as contrary to biblical teaching and mocking the idea of Christians who attend "hippie church," he said, full of "peace, love and rose petals." But one of his allies also walked to the other side and offered gay-rights protesters bottles of ice-cold water.