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Westboro Baptist group plans protests at 6 Gainesville churches on Super Bowl Sunday
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First Baptist Church of Gainesville - photo by David Barnes

A religious group widely known for its anti-gay rhetoric and demonstrations against slain U.S. soldiers at funerals has planned protests at six Gainesville churches on Super Bowl Sunday.

The Westboro Baptist Church released this schedule for Feb. 3:

  • First Baptist Church of Gainesville: 8-8:30 a.m.

  • St. John Baptist Church: 9-9:30 a.m.

  • First Presbyterian Church: 9:30-10 a.m.

  • St. Michael Roman Catholic Church: 10-10:30 a.m.

  • Grace Episcopal Church: 10:15-10:45 a.m.

  • Good Shepherd Lutheran Church: 10:30-11 a.m.

In a letter dated Jan. 15 addressed to Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin, Rebecca Phelps-Davis, ostensibly a lawyer representing Westboro, writes that the motive for their visit is “for public demonstration/outdoor religious services regarding the judgment of God with respect to the dangers of promoting homosexuality, same-sex marriage, the filthy manner of life and idol-worshipping of this nation.”

The letter states Westboro has demonstrated in this manner for 28 years across the nation.  

Phelps-Davis asks that police provide security for Westboro members.

“We recognize that our message, though once quite traditional, will not be well received by some factions of our society, and our experience over the years indicates that sometimes people who oppose our message are tempted to try violence to silence it,” the letter states.  “We request that law enforcement fulfill their duty to take responsible steps to keep the peace. We will at all times conduct ourselves in a peaceful and law-abiding manner and will fulfill any lawful request or order of your officers.”

In an email to local officials, which was shared with The Times, Gainesville City Manager Bryan Lackey writes, “We will take this seriously and be prepared at each location that morning. (Gainesville Police) is making them aware of what permits they need.”

Gainesville Police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said on Friday that authorities are working to ensure order.

“We are aware of the intentions by the Westboro Baptist Church to picket locations in the Metro Atlanta area,” he said in a statement. “We are working with the organizers to ensure the short-lived schedule of events are safe for all parties involved.”

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham, rector at Grace Episcopal, released a YouTube video this week informing his congregation about Westboro’s plans and imploring church members to share in a common prayer and praise of God while embracing the tenet “love thy neighbor.”

“We never experience transformation by yelling at each other,” Higginbotham said in the video.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a left-leaning advocacy group, Westboro “is basically a family-based cult of personality built around its patriarch, Fred Phelps.”

Higginbotham asked parishioners not to engage the demonstrators and said congregants can enter through the rear door if they prefer.

Higginbotham added that Grace plans to ring its church bells the entire 30 minutes Westboro has been permitted to demonstrate outside the church to “let (the bells) be for you an echo of God’s love spreading out through this entire town.”

Kyle Gomez-Leineweber, president of the College Democrats at Brenau University who also works with the Young Democrats of Hall County, said groups like his and Indivisible Lumpkin, a progressive political group, are spearheading a counter-protest.

Gomez-Leineweber said the groups filed applications Thursday for permits to rally.

“We want to be at the church when they get there … and when they leave there,” he added.

Zach Hoffman, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran, said he was familiar with Westboro and surprised they had chosen Gainesville and his church to picket.

“I did know who they were when I was first notified,” he added. “But I think also there’s an opportunity.”

Hoffman said he hopes Westboro’s presence will be met with a peaceful response while showing kindness.

“It’s forgiveness and love for thy neighbor that holds the church together,” he said.

Hoffman said congregants should come to church as if it were any other Sunday, but acknowledged that Westboro’s presence is uncharted territory for local churches.

“I have no idea what it’s going to look like,” he added. “It’s something we’ve never experienced as a congregation. I think this kind of has us all moving into new territory.”

Stephen Samuel, pastor of St. John Baptist, said he, too, was already familiar with Westboro and its actions.

“You kind of keep up with that,” he said.

But, like others, Samuel said he didn’t understand why Westboro had chosen Gainesville other than its relative proximity to Atlanta and the media attention the Super Bowl attracts.   

In a letter to parishioners, First Baptist Church of Gainesville Executive Pastor Kent Murphey wrote, “At First Baptist, we will continue to welcome anyone who comes to worship, no matter what they are or what they have done in their past.” 

Westboro has sued and won damages against municipalities that have tried to ban their picketing or did not providing adequate security during demonstrations.

Samuel said whatever the reason for Westboro’s visit, his congregation would not be turned away by their presence.

“We’re not making any concessions,” Samuel said. “We’re going to be in church, literally having service. Sunday mornings are important for us. It’s what we do. It’s not going to disrupt us in that sense.

Hall County Commissioner Jeff Stowe, whose district encompasses the city of Gainesville, said that while he respects freedom of speech and Westboro’s right to demonstrate, judgment ought to be left to God.

“We’re a very loving community,” Stowe said. “There’s no place for hate in society. I hope we’ll just ignore this. They’re looking to have somebody pick a fight with them.”