PROCTOR — This town, population 1,741, briefly gained Internet notoriety this week from an online news story about a local pastor sentenced to a year in federal prison after refusing to marry gay couples.
In an alternate universe, that pastor might be serving his sentence.
In the real Proctor, none of this is true and most people haven’t even heard of such a tale.
The article — titled “Christian Pastor in Vermont Sentenced to One Year in Prison After Refusing To Marry Gay Couple” — appeared on a website built to look very similar to NBC News, down to the web address, www.nbc. com.co.
The story claimed Proctor pastor Paul Horner was sentenced to a year in federal prison “after refusing to marry gay couples.” The article further quoted the “Honorable” Myron Danus as imposing the sentence, Steve Shand as head of the “Vermont Family Research Committee” and Gwen Hawkins as president of the “LGBT Pride Center” in Vermont.
The major issue with the story? Horner, Danus, Shand and Hawkins don’t exist — at least not as a Proctor pastor, a Vermont judge and the heads of organizations with opposing views of gay rights.
That didn’t stop the story from being picked up and spread across the Internet, even gaining attention from Fox News journalist Shannon Bream, who tweeted a link to the nbc.com.co story along with a statement she was working to confirm the story.
About 20 minutes later, Bream tweeted: “Our research crew finding nothing legit on VT “story” — why we always Q/seek our own confirmation. Fri night can resume being boring.”
Several calls from Christian news organizations, including the Trumpet Online, came into the Rutland Herald newsroom inquiring if the there was any truth to the story.
But with a simple Google search and a few phone calls, the story crumbled to pieces.
“No, it isn’t true,” said the Rev. Eric VanLeeuwen, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Gibbs Street in Proctor.
He said he received a call from a pastor in California inquiring about the article, but otherwise hasn’t heard from anyone in the community.
“To the best of my knowledge, nobody in Proctor is aware of such a thing,” VanLeeuwen said. “No one in this community has spoken to me about it. I have reason to doubt that this community has much knowledge about it.”
At the town offices, Town Manager Stan Wilbur hadn’t heard a word about it.
According to snopes.com, a website that debunks urban legends, “If the name ‘Paul Horner’ sounds familiar, that’s likely because the moniker is a staple of fake news articles penned by writer Paul Horner for the fake news sites such as the National Report and the News Examiner.”
Horner’s attorney and the sentencing judge are not on the Vermont Judiciary Committee’s list — meaning they are either fictitious or not in good standing.
At the Pride Center of Vermont, Executive Director Kim Fountain has been fielding a few calls and emails asking about the woman named Gwen Hawkins, identified as the president of the LGBT Pride Center in Vermont.
“It’s pure fabrication for the purpose of propaganda,” Fountain said. “I don’t think she actually exists … that organization doesn’t exist to my knowledge. I’ve been here for four years and I’ve never heard of her. Might she exist somewhere in a house? Maybe, but I don’t think so.”
While it seems the tall tale has drawn little attention locally, it made The Washington Post’s list of “What was fake on the Internet this week.”