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House speaker stands by his statement that Confederate battle emblem on state flag is divisive

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PHILADELPHIA, Mississippi — About two dozen people who want to keep the Confederate battle emblem on the Mississippi flag held the banner in silent protest Thursday as Republican state House Speaker Philip Gunn spoke at the Neshoba County Fair.

The fair is one of the year's largest political gatherings, and Gunn's speech was his biggest public appearance since late June, when he said after the Charleston church massacre that the Confederate symbol is divisive and Mississippi should design a new state flag that would unify people.

"I see the makings of a Philip Gunn fan club," Gunn joked as he looked toward the protesters who made up a small share of the audience under a large pavilion.

Then, in a more serious tone, he added: "We don't always agree, and that's the beauty of our country."

By the end of Gunn's speech, when he was denouncing the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, some of the people holding the flags were applauding for him.

"I don't care what the Supreme Court says. Marriage will always be between one man and one woman in holy matrimony," said Gunn, an attorney and lay leader of a Baptist church in Clinton.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and four candidates who are trying to unseat him also spoke Thursday.

Bryant, who's seeking a second term, said Mississippi is thriving under his leadership. He said he will push for some sort of tax cut next year, and he expects critics to bash him.

"But it's your money," Bryant told the crowd. "You earned it."

PHOTO: Stephen Greer lays out campaign hand fans on the audience benches in the pavilion in Founders Square at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Thursday, July 30, 2015. Greer's father, Tony Greer, is a Republican running for Central District Public Service Commissioner. The fair is a traditional gathering place for politicians, area residents, business leaders, voters and families. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Stephen Greer lays out campaign hand fans on the audience benches in the pavilion in Founders Square at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Thursday, July 30, 2015. Greer's father, Tony Greer, is a Republican running for Central District Public Service Commissioner. The fair is a traditional gathering place for politicians, area residents, business leaders, voters and families. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Vicki Slater, an attorney who's one of three Democrats running for governor, said Bryant has failed the state in education, health care and economic development.

"The federal government gave us NAFTA. But our governor has given us the shaft-ah," Slater said.

Dr. Valerie Adream Smartt Short, a military veteran and obstetrician-gynecologist who faces Slater in Tuesday's primary, started her speech by mentioning James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — civil-rights workers killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Neshoba County in 1964. She spoke in bursts of short phrases about problems she sees in Mississippi: School budgets that fall short, health care that's often unavailable to the poor.

"They're always the same issues since I've been alive," Short said.

The other Democrat running for governor, truck driver Robert Gray, did not speak at the fair.

Mitch Young, a Navy veteran who's running a low-budget campaign in the Republican primary for governor, said Bryant has failed to secure full funding for schools and has ignored public corruption.

"If he were a ship's captain, the Navy would consider him incompetent," Young said.

The Reform Party's Shawn O'Hara pledges to rip up the state's 1890 constitution if he becomes governor.

"I will throw it in the trash can, ladies and gentlemen," said O'Hara, who has run unsuccessfully for governor and several other offices, under a variety of party labels, since the early 1990s.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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