Maiden, North Carolina is a rural town in America's South. It normally doesn't get a lot of attention. But, in recent weeks, the town has become the latest flashpoint in the ongoing debate over gay rights in the United States. That's because a sermon, by one of Maiden's Baptist ministers, was posted on the internet and went "viral". In the video, Charles Worley outlines a plan to imprison the United States' gays and lesbians behind an electric fence until they die.
The pastor was responding to recent comments by President Barack Obama, who last month made history by becoming the first sitting US president to declare support for same-sex marriage.
"I've always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally," Obama said. "I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."
It's a view that doesn't sit well with many living in the rural United States' so-called "Bible belt". That's what prompted Pastor Worley's sermon. In a message posted online, Worley says that when it comes to gay marriage, "God's against it. I'm against it."
Worley also told his North Carolina congregation that if it were up to him, he would imprison all gays and lesbians behind an electric fence. "In a few years, they'll die. Do you know why? They can't reproduce," said Worley.
Maiden's outspoken pastor isn't the only one who believes gays and lesbians should be treated differently from heterosexuals. Another pastor, Sean Harris, also in North Carolina, recently apologised after he told parents to slap their children if they suspect he or she is gay.
In yet another sermon posted online, Harris told his church, "The second you see that limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist."
The views have outraged many Americans who traveled from around the United States to protest outside Pastor Worley's church. Terry Cooley and his partner Dave Delouy drove 1,200 kilometres from Florida to speak out against the sermons.
"I just wanted to let the country and the world know that we will drive, we will fly, we will go anywhere to stand up against this type of hateful rhetoric," Cooley said.
"We've spent a lot of time since 9/11 talking about religious extremism in other countries, but look what's going on here in the United States," said Delouy.
But others at the protest came to support Pastor Worley. Reverend Billy Ball travelled from the state of Georgia to support his colleagues' view that homosexuality is a sin. "Sodomy has always been an abomination, Old and New Testament, has always been in God's view punishable by death," Ball said.
Jeffrey Shook, who attends Pastor Worley's church, also told Al Jazeera he supports this view, and that Worley's internet sermon was simply "misunderstood".
"I think he preached the truth. I think a lot of people just took it out of context."
Still, the Southern Baptist Convention - which oversees a large number of churches in the American South - is distancing itself from the pastors. It points out that they are not affiliated with the church organisation, and that the pastors do not reflect the Convention's views.
Dr Barrett Duke, Vice President for Public Policy and Research at the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told Al Jazeera: "These are some of the most irresponsible, uninformed and, quite frankly, un-Christian comments I've ever heard from a pastor."
"Everyone has a right to believe what they want to believe. The problem is when you start threatening people's lives."
- Kessiah Young, divinity student
Duke said the comments go against Jesus' teachings that one should love their neighbor as they would themselves. Duke is concerned that anyone who might be gay, and is a member of one of the churches preaching messages of intolerance, would not feel welcome, or even safe in what should be a loving, Christian environment.
"In many ways it really does impact the reputation of all of Christianity around the world. It is very unfortunate," Duke said.
Kessiah Young, a student of divinity, agrees. She also travelled to Maiden to protest comments she said have the potential to divide the Christian church in the United States.
"We really just have to get together and pastors like Worley need to realise that they are damaging God's love. They're not showing God's love and inclusivity. We've got to stop this hatred," Young said.
Another protestor, Stephanie Young, grew up in Maiden, and said she was saddened but not surprised by the comments. "Many of the churches I attended were very similar to this. Everyone has a right to believe what they want to believe," said Young. "The problem is when you start threatening people's lives."
But so far, Pastor Worley has not apologised, to the dismay of many Americans who say they are concerned about the rise in anti-gay rhetoric in the United States - a country that protects freedom of expression in its constitution, no matter how incendiary or toxic.
Source: Al Jazeera