By Julie Muhlstein Herald Writer
EVERETT — They show up with signs saying “God Hates You” and “Thank God for Maimed Soldiers.” Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based group that spreads its anti-gay message by picketing military funerals, plans to protest outside five Snohomish County churches July 29.
Before coming to Everett, according to the group’s website, protesters from the church based in Topeka, Kan., will picket Friday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Appearances at the University of Washington and at the Seattle office of the Anti-Defamation League are also listed.
In the Everett area, the site lists appearances at Canyon Creek Church, Christian Faith Center, Northshore Christian Church and Academy, New Life Church, and St. Mary Magdalen Church. On that Sunday, protests are tightly scheduled, starting at 8 a.m. at Canyon Creek and ending at noon at St. Mary Magdalen.
Among reasons the website gives for targeting the Everett churches are “feel-good theology,” female pastors, divorce and remarriage, and “pedophile priests.”
“I think we should show up and counter them with silence,” said Meg Winch, chairwoman of the Snohomish County Commission on Human Rights. Winch said Friday she plans to call a meeting of the commission next week to “create a community response.” The volunteer panel was appointed by the County Council.
All over the country, Westboro protests have been met by counter-demonstrations. The Westboro church could not be reached for comment Friday.
“Certainly everyone has the right to free speech,” Winch said. “We will be there to stand with other members of our community, but we will not spout hate speech back at them. Snohomish County stands against hate.”
Not affiliated with any Baptist organization, the Westboro church is largely a family group headed by patriarch Fred Phelps. With their crude signs, protesters at military funerals claim that the deaths are punishment to an America that accepts homosexuality.
“They are largely considered a hate group,” said Rob Cizek, executive pastor of Northshore Christian Church.
Cizek said Westboro protesters have come to his church near the Boeing plant before. A funeral for someone from Naval Station Everett was held in Northshore’s auditorium a couple of years ago, he said. “Three of them came for about 45 minutes. They weren’t vocal. They held up signs and then left,” Cizek said.
If they come again, Cizek said, “we will monitor their activity and make sure they stay on public property.”
“As long as they’re not harassing pedestrians or blocking traffic, everyone has a right to free speech and demonstration,” said Sgt. Ryan Dalberg, an Everett Police Department spokesman. Dalberg said groups need permits for parades or events that blocks traffic, but that Westboro protesters on sidewalks would be no different than those in downtown Everett supporting U.S. troops.
“We just want to keep our community safe,” said Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shari Ireton. Sheriff’s officials plan to talk with staff from the Christian Faith Center, which is in unincorporated Snohomish County, before July 29.
“We are working to make sure that the First Amendment rights of both groups are being respected, and we will have a presence there to make sure things are orderly,” Ireton said.
“I don’t think they have a clue why they’re protesting,” said Brandon Beals, pastor of Canyon Creek Church. Beals has heard that a motorcycle group that has provided buffers between Westboro protesters and funeral sites may come here.
Lori Hartelius is chairwoman of SnoGLOBE Equality Alliance, which works to promote safety, acceptance and support for gay and lesbian people in Snohomish County. The group meets at Everett’s First Congregational United Church of Christ, which Hartelius said shows that although Christians may disagree over many issues, “we’ve gone so far forward, into a respectful conversation.”
“It’s unfortunate that any denomination would not respect the right of any other denomination to practice their faith in the way they feel is appropriate,” said Greg Magnoni, a spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.
Magnoni sees it as ironic that Westboro Baptist Church would protest at St. Mary Magdalen. Catholic churches in Snohomish County were among those where petitions were gathered for R-74, the referendum that would repeal the state’s new gay-marriage law.
“The fact that they disrupt military funerals, most people of faith find that very offensive,” Magnoni said.
“Everyone I’ve ever talked to, from either side of the political spectrum, everyone universally condemns them,” state Rep. Marko Liias said of the Westboro protesters.
A Democrat who represents the 21st District that includes Mukilteo and Edmonds, Liias is gay. He has worked to pass laws against bullying. He is encouraged by the response to the Westboro Baptist Church.
“When they came to Seattle a couple months ago, there were way more counter-protesters than actual protesters,” Liias said. “They’re reminding us how far we’ve come.”
Adam Semon, of Snohomish, learned about the Westboro protests from a friend whose wife is in the military in Afghanistan. He joined a Facebook group, Celebrate Humanity, specifically created to counter Westboro’s message in Everett.
Semon plans to join counter-demonstrators at every church the Westboro group visits. “I’m following them from beginning to end,” he said.
“When all you’re doing is spreading hate and misinformation, that’s wrong,” Semon said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.