LYNNWOOD — An anti-gay religious group planning a three-day meeting at the Lynnwood Convention Center beginning Friday likely will be met by protests.
People from churches and gay and lesbian groups are speaking out against the proposed meeting of Watchmen on the Walls, an organization identified by national watchdog groups as “virulently anti-gay.”
“I certainly support their right to free speech and their right to hold their conference, but I don’t believe we can sit back and let them have their say without letting them know that they’re not welcome in Snohomish County,” said Cindy Worthen, 46, of Everett.
She said she’s working to organize peaceful protests.
Watchmen on the Walls, a group founded by a Latvian minister that includes mainly Russian-speaking members, is building a reputation for being an “unbelievably virulent anti-gay organization,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nationally known organization that fights hate groups.
People affiliated with Watchmen have been accused of throwing human feces at people with whom they disagree and using extreme, hate-filled speech, the center said.
Watchmen organizers on Monday could not be reached for comment.
One of the planned speakers is Scott Lively, a California lawyer and anti-gay activist who published a book blaming the Holocaust on gays.
Ken Hutcherson, former Seattle Seahawks player and Kirkland pastor, confirmed Monday that he plans to speak in Lynnwood.
Joseph Fuiten, a Bothell pastor, said he also plans to address the group about civic engagement and the importance of voting.
Fuiten said he is not connected with the Watchmen group and bristled at what he called the Southern Poverty Law Center’s overbroad characterizations.
“They make extreme and outlandish charges against anybody who opposes their extremely liberal agenda,” he said.
Fuiten said he’s opposed to special rights for homosexuals and opposes gay marriage, but he does not advocate hate or violence.
Lynnwood Mayor Don Gough on Monday said he’s working hard to foster an atmosphere of understanding and tolerance in the city.
“While we must also value and respect the constitutional rights of everyone to exercise their freedom of speech and freedom to peaceably assemble, our city will not tolerate the actions of any person or group which violate the personal safety or constitutional rights of any other person or group,” he said in a statement.
The Lynnwood Convention Center is operated by the Lynnwood Public Facilities District, not by the city, he said.
On Friday, Mike Echelbarger, the district’s board president, said the Watchmen are law abiding and have a right to free speech. He said the district wouldn’t rent the public space to the Ku Klux Klan.
“I find it intolerable when a institution will rent to some bigot organizations and not other bigots,” said Josh Friedes, a spokesman for Equal Rights Washington, a gay and lesbian advocacy group based in Seattle. “It suggests that bigotry against some groups is tolerable. It seems like the convention center may be saying that it’s acceptable to discriminate against gays and lesbians but that it’s not acceptable to do this against other people.”
Echelbarger did not return calls Monday.
The Watchmen met all the requirements for renting space, Lynnwood Convention Center General Manager Eddie Tadlock said Monday.
“When we book a group at the facility, we do due diligence to find out the history of the group, where they’ve met before,” Tadlock said.
The Watchmen met without problems at a convention center in Bellevue last year, he said.
The convention center likely doesn’t have a choice about who can lease space, said Michele Earl-Hubbard, a lawyer with Allied Law Group.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling forces public places to be nondiscriminatory about who rents, she said. Unless illegal activity is planned, there’s little that can be done to stop organizations.
“Just because they have an unpopular viewpoint, that’s not a reason” not to rent space, she said. “Those are the people whose rights need to be protected more. The test of our freedom is when you have the unpopular viewpoint and to see if those are protected as well.”
Bill Bryant, 81, of Arlington, said he plans to attend the prayer gathering. He recently left the Episcopalian church after a gay man was elected a bishop.
He said homosexuality is a sin in the Christian church and people can be forgiven for it. Still, he’s wary of the Watchmen.
“I’ll go down and find out,” Bryant said. “If they’re a hate group, I’m not interested.”
Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or email@example.com.