By Jackson Holtz, Herald Writer
LYNNWOOD — An anti-gay religious group is planning a three-day conference beginning Friday at the Lynnwood Convention Center.
Watchmen on the Walls expects as many as 700 people to attend the prayer gathering, including religious leaders and an anti-gay activist who claims the Holocaust was perpetrated by gays.
Convention center officials said there’s little they can do to stop an organization from renting the publicly owned convention center.
The venue is owned by the Lynnwood Public Facilities District, a public taxing district that operates the convention center but is separate from the city.
“Our understanding is that they’re law-abiding. They have a right of free speech just like any other group,” said Mike Echelbarger, the board’s chairman.
“If we were talking about the (Ku Klux Klan) we’d have a totally different take on it. Of course we wouldn’t rent to the KKK,” he said.
Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon said the group’s anti-gay message isn’t welcome.
“It’s not a message that will resonate with the citizens of Snohomish County,” he said. “They’re wasting their time being here, in my opinion.”
Watchmen on the Walls is planning four “regular services, like church services,” said Sergy Trikhodko. He described himself as a contact person for the Lynnwood event, but said he could not speak about Watchmen on the Walls, its mission or history.
Other group officials could not be reached for comment.
The Russian-speaking group, founded by a Latvian minister, is building a reputation for being an “unbelievably virulent anti-gay organization,” said Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala. The center is known for promoting tolerance, tracking hate groups and fighting legal battles against white supremacists, including the Klan and Aryan Nations.
Watchmen on the Walls’ positions are far beyond those typically seen among groups who oppose gays, Potok said. In the former Soviet republic of Latvia, members of the group have been accused of throwing human feces at people with whom they disagree. In the United States, the group is known for extreme, hate-filled speech, Potok said.
“It’s the kind of language that leads to violent crimes and often death,” he said.
While Watchmen on the Walls hasn’t officially been placed on the center’s list of hate groups, they likely will be when the list is updated at the end of the year, Potok said.
Among those expected to speak in Lynnwood is Scott Lively, a lawyer from California. He is a “radical anti-gay activist who has all sorts of beliefs about homosexuality and fascism,” said Michelle Deutchman, western states counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.
Lively has published a book advancing the theory that gays were responsible for the Nazi holocaust during World War II. Millions of people, including gays, Jews, the mentally retarded and others perished in Nazi concentration camps.
“Lively is about as bad as it comes when it comes to anti-gay propaganda,” Potok said. He said he doubts the California man truly believes that gay people orchestrated the Holocaust, but “he’s perfectly willing to make that claim,” Potok said.
Lively could not be reached at the phone number listed for his law office.
Also listed as a speaker for the Lynnwood gathering is former Seattle Seahawk Ken Hutcherson. He’s now a pastor at the Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland and a vocal opponent to gay marriage.
Trikhodko said Hutcherson will participate. Hutcherson’s assistant, Anne Comer, said the pastor has not been invited. He did speak at the organization’s conference last year in Kirkland, she said. Hutcherson was unavailable Friday to clear up the question.
The Watchmen group is composed of some of the state’s 200,000 Russian speaking immigrants, said Pastor Joe Fuiten of Bothell’s Cedar Park Church. He plans to be a featured speaker at the Lynnwood event.
Fuiten, known statewide for rallying the religious right on moral issues, bristled at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s characterization of the Watchmen.
“That southern law group, they’re a bunch of whackos,” Fuiten said. “They’re the hate group. That’s a gay front, is what that is.”
Potok said he’s heard that kind of criticism before.
“That’s what the Klan says about us, too,” he said.
Fuiten said the Watchmen are “extraordinarily” religious and conservative.
Many members fled to the United States from former Soviet countries because they wanted religious freedoms, he said. They arrived here to find a secular culture moving away from religious life. Now, they are calling for a return to moral values, Fuiten said.
“Watchmen on the Walls is an extremist organization that makes the radical right look liberal,” said Josh Friedes, advocacy director for Equal Rights Washington, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights group. He’s concerned about violence, and wonders “What will Lynnwood do to make sure that GLBT citizens are welcome in the town and to make sure to the rest of the state that this conference isn’t a Lynnwood value?”
Lynnwood Mayor Don Gough didn’t return calls Friday.
Lynnwood police Deputy Chief Paul Watkins said extra officers will be available during the event if necessary.
“We’ll make some contingency plans just in case, but we aren’t expecting any problems,” he said.
Reardon said there’s no place in the county for hate. Arlington and Mill Creek police are investigating recent incidents of swastikas and racial slurs spray painted onto area homes.
The vandalism has spurred religious leaders to say that racism is alive and well in the county.
“Snohomish County certainly doesn’t welcome individuals or organizations that espouse messages of discrimination or hate or intolerance,” he said. “We certainly don’t welcome people who seek to promote those messages or incite violence.”
Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or firstname.lastname@example.org.