Local law enforcement officials are urging Marion citizens to avoid counter protests, verbal exchanges or other types of opposition to the Westboro Baptist Church members who are expected in town Sunday protesting four churches and U.S. Army veteran Ryan Newell.
?Please go about your business as if it were a typical Sunday morning,? Marion County Sheriff Rob Craft told more than 250 people who attended the town meeting Wednesday at the USD 408 Performing Arts Center.
Marion Police Chief Josh Whitwell and Craft said they called the town meeting to educate the public about the WBC group with the goal of making sure nobody gets into trouble.
?Keep it as low key as possible and there won?t be a lot of excitement,? Craft said. ?It may even deter them from coming back.?
Agreeing with Craft, Whitwell added that WBC members want to get citizens into a conflict.
?If you give them hot chocolate, your message and are nice, they will throw it back in your face,? Whitwell said. ?The best way to handle this is to just ignore them. If you give a reaction, they will come back.?
Craft also said members of this group have been doing these protests for more than 20 years.
?You aren?t going to tell them anything they haven?t heard already,? he said.
About the protest
Whitwell said seven WBC members will be picketing Sunday at four churches. They were planning to protest at five churches, but Whitwell said the group dropped Emanuel Baptist Church from their plans. The WBC members will be back in Marion Tuesday to picket outside Marion High School, but Whitwell did not know how many protesters would be coming.
Whitwell said picketers on Sunday will mainly be across the street from churches on city easements.
?This is where we will have them stationed,? he said.
Whitwell did say that public property includes sidewalks and grassy areas before curbs.
Marion County Attorney Susan Robson wanted to reiterate that WBC members are professional protesters.
?If we engage them, we give them power,? she said.
Questions from the public
One person suggested having a community worship service with everyone going to the same location. Although Whitwell said it was a good idea, he also said such a plan would be playing into the WBC?s hand.
?similar to a terrorist organization, if they can get people out of their routine, they have won,? he said.
Craft said, ?We can alter our lifestyle to avoid them, but they will continue to come back until they believe they have succeeded.?
One person asked about charging for a protest permit.
Whitwell said the WBC members spend more than $200,000 a year traveling across the country to stage protests. In other words, the cost of permit would be insignificant as a deterrent.
One person asked if she could set up video cameras on her property without posting it. Whitwell said there is no law against video surveillance on one?s property.
He also let everyone know that WBC members will also be using body microphones and will have their own security cameras.
?They hope to catch you in a slip-up as well,? Whitwell said.
One person said his church was targeted by WBC members in Topeka for several months. ?I have been up close and personal with these people,? he said.
Based on his experience with the group, he said Marion?s response should be no response as much as possible.
?When WBC protesters were harassing church members in the parking lot,? he said, ?one of the media representatives had a video camera, which stopped them from saying their atrocious things.?
Why picket the high school?
Whitwell and Craft were asked by someone at the meeting why the WBC members would want to protest Marion High School. ?They have no reason, they go for the most anger,? Craft said.
?We are a God-based community and (protesting the school) affects a lot of people with a strong emotional reaction, which is what they want,? he said.
Added Whitwell: ?We will be right there at the protest. We will be meeting with students and discuss and educate them on what they will be encountering.?
As for security and what the school district has planned for Tuesday, Whitwell asked everyone to have faith in district leaders. ?The district has some things in place,? he said.
American Legion Riders
Kevin Hoffer, American Legion commander in Marion, said the American Legion Riders will not have a presence at Sunday?s picket.
In a statement read at the meeting, Hoffer said the Legion?does not condone what happened last week in Wichita, but added that a fellow veteran, Ryan Newell, needs help in restoring his life.
?That is what it is all about for us,? Hoffer said. ?Our focus is for Ryan?s family to have a good Christmas. We pray for the man and his family.?
Hoffer said the Legion?s presence at Sunday?s protest would only be adding fuel to a potentially volatile situation
?Aren?t these people (WBC members) doing the same thing that Sgt. Ryan Newell is being accused of?? a person asked during the meeting. ?Aren?t they stalking Newell??
Whitwell said the stalking statute is vague in its interpretation.
?Newell is not present (in Marion) and he would be the victim of the stalking,? he said.
Another person said he believed WBC members are emotionally and psychologically hurting Newell?s children.
One of the local pastors, Carl Helm of the Christian Church, said he was around this group while he was a pastor in Topeka.
?In all honesty, they are no problem if you just leave them alone,? he said. ?You will see (protest) signs you have never seen before in your life and, if curious, go ahead and read them.
?Try to remember Jonestown years ago,? Helm said. ?The leader of Jonestown (Jim Jones) is no different than Fred Phelps and is exactly how I would compare them. Just like in Jonestown, (followers) would have been OK if they had left the Kool-Aid alone. Just don?t drink it.?
Helm said the WBC is a cult.
?It is not a church, it is a cult, and you may think you have something reasonable to say to them, but you cannot talk reasonably to unreasonable people. Just ignore them.?
For more information about Wednesday?s meeting or Sunday?s protest by WBC members, call the Marion Police Department at 620-382-2651 or Marion County Sheriff?s office at 620-382-2144.