Sunday?s protest of four Marion churches by Westboro Baptist Church members was canceled, but the group did plan protest Tuesday at Marion High School, and officials remind everyone to continue avoiding contact with them.
Marion County Sheriff Rob Craft said Monday he received a call from Marion Police Chief Josh Whitwell at about 10 p.m. Saturday saying that because of the weather, WBC members weren?t coming Sunday.
WBC members were still planning to protest churches in Marion at a later date, Craft added.
Craft and Whitwell are asking residents not to engage in conversation with these protesters, which was discussed at last Wednesday?s town meeting
During the Dec. 8 meeting at USD 408 Performing Arts Center, citizens were urged to avoid counter protests, verbal exchanges or other types of opposition to WBC members, who planned to protest churches, the high school and U.S. Army veteran Ryan Newell.
?Please go about your business as if it were a typical Sunday morning,? Craft told more than 250 people attending the meeting.
The town meeting was called to educate everyone about the WBC group with the goal of making sure nobody gets into trouble.
?Keep as low key as possible,? Craft said, ?and there won?t be a lot of excitement. 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 have them hot chocolate, your message and are nice, they (WBC members) 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 the members of this group have been doing these protests from 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.
Those churches included St. Mark?s Catholic Church-Holy Family Parish from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., Marion Presbyterian Church from 9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., Emmanuel Baptist Church and Valley United Methodist Church from 10:10 a.m. to 10:40 a.m., and Eastmoor United Methodist Church from 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
However, Whitwell said the group dropped Emanual Baptist Church from their plans with no explanation provided.
The WBC members were 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.
However, 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 gentlemen suggested having a community worship service with everyone going to the same location.
Although Whitwell said it was a good idea, he also said that would be playing into the group?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 woman 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 man 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 as close to 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.
?We will be right there at the protest,? Whitwell said about the Tuesday picketing.
?We will be meeting with students and discuss and educate them on what they will be encountering,? he said.
As for security and what the school district has planned Tuesday, Whitwell asked everyone to have faith in the Marion School District.
?The district has some things in place,? he said.
American Legion Riders
American Legion Commander Kevin Hoffer 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 AL?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,? he said.
By being present at Sunday?s protest, Hoffer said the AL believes it would only be adding fuel.
?Aren?t these people (WBC members) doing the same thing that Sgt. Ryan Newell is being accused of?? a man attending the meeting asked. ?Aren?t they stalking Newell??
Whitwell explained 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 the WBC members are emotionally and psychologically hurting Newell?s children.
One of the local pastors, Carl Helm of the Christian Church, said he has been around this group while 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, they (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 future protests involving WBC members or other groups, call the Marion Police Department at 620-382-2651 or Marion County Sheriff?s office at 620-382-2144.