MAIDEN, N.C. -- Catawba County, N.C., officials have backed down after initially denying a request from marchers who want to use county facilities this weekend to stage a protest against a preacher's anti-gay sermon.
Organizers of the protest had originally predicted several hundred marchers would show up Sunday outside the Providence Baptist Church in Maiden to protest against the Rev. Charles Worley, who said in a sermon that gays should be put behind electrified fences.
But national attention, including coverage 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.
In originally denying the request, the county had cited county codes governing public use of grounds. Provisions include 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'd 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."
On Thursday night, the county posted a statement on its website, saying officials had received an application earlier that day for public use of the lawn of the Justice Center for Sunday's protest.
"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," the statement said.
Officials said they consulted with constitutional law experts after receiving the application and then chose to grant permission for the assembly "in the interest of demonstrating appropriate respect for the ideals embedded in the Constitution."
Chris Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said earlier on Thursday the organization was investigating "what we're hearing about the permitting process" in Catawba County.
Catawba County Attorney Debra Bechtel said the county is "firmly committed to citizens' rights of peaceable assembly."
The 14-day requirement for applications is necessary so the county can do everything it needs to safely accommodate groups, Bechtel said. With the possible size of the crowds on Sunday, that would be extremely challenging in such a short turnaround, she said.
But the statement released Thursday evening said, "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."
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 Charlotte 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.
The Observer's news partner WCNC quoted church member Geneva Sims as saying 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."
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 nor 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 be respected; as this is the expectation that Jesus has established in the Bible for all who follow him."
Meanwhile, Tipton said emails, phone calls and other messages continue to flow in from people around the country saying they'll be in Newton on Sunday to march from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.
"I had no idea it would be this big," she said. "Our plans for the protest have not changed at this time."