A Kansas church that had announced plans to picket local churches, schools and the Greene County Courthouse on Sunday and Monday, Jan. 18 and 19, has apparently decided to go to Texas instead.
Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, had earlier announced the intention of some of its members to come to Greeneville on Jan. 18 and 19 to protest, because the county government declined the church's offer of an anti-homosexual monument. Announcement of those intentions came in the form of flyers sent by fax to the churches and schools, to Greene County Mayor Roger Jones, and to newspapers as far away as Chattanooga.
For a time, the Westboro intention to picket here was included on schedules of picketing efforts posted on several of the church's Internet sites, including www.Godhatesfags.com and Hatemongers.com
The Kansas church said in November that it wanted to erect what would be in effect an anti-homosexual monument here.
The church took that position after the Greene County Commission passed a resolution in September acknowledging the role of God in America's heritage.
Shortly thereafter, Jones directed County Attorney Roger Woolsey to contact the church and decline the offer of a granite monument proclaiming that a homosexual man who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998 "entered Hell" after his death. Woolsey said at the time that he notified Westboro Baptist's attorney, who was also the pastor's daughter, by telephone, and followed up with a letter, formally declining the offer.
Jones said at that time that, while Greene County did not condone homosexuality, the county "is not about hating."
Jones said Wednesday that he contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation after receiving the Westboro Baptist Church flyers.
He said the FBI agents he spoke to told him that the Bureau was aware of the church, and that its pickets usually adhere to the schedule of events announced on the Websites.
For a time, several Greeneville locations were in fact on the Website, but in recent weeks they have been replaced by announced plans to picket in Texas. "Personally, I don't think they'll come unannounced," Jones said, because doing so would lessen the possibility of media coverage, which is something the church's Website says it always seeks when picketing.
"The possibility always exists," Jones said, that the church may picket anyway, or may picket at some other time.
"If they come, we'll deal with it, and go on," the county mayor said. "They're exercising their right to free speech."
Greeneville Police Chief Mack Jones said his department has not been contacted by the church. But, he said, because he was aware of the possible picketing, he also contacted the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
Chief Jones said it is his understanding that Westboro Baptist pickets normally only carry signs and "voice their opinion," and if that is the case, then no permits would be required for them to picket here.
Some local churches have taken steps to make their members aware that the possibility of picketing at their Sunday services exists, and others said they planned to do so before Sunday, just in case.
The Rev. Dr. Dan Donaldson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, said the pastors of the targeted churches held a meeting several weeks ago and drafted a letter to be used to notify congregations of what might happen, and how to respond.
The letter said that Westboro Baptist Church at that time apparently planned to picket Notre Dame Catholic Church, St. James Episcopal Church, Reformation Lutheran Church, Asbury United Methodist Church and First Presbyterian Church on Jan. 18. Because of its proximity to targeted churches, Greeneville Cumberland Presbyterian Church was also alerted by the ministers of the targeted churches.
The letter written by the local ministers states, in part, "Westboro's actions are not about our churches, schools or county government. We are only symbols of their cause: to provoke incidents to keep them in the news. Their words, phrases and graphic signs can be shocking and offensive.
"If we can avoid engagement with them, then we have defeated their agenda. They do not want conversation. They want a reaction.
"Any physical contact with them or any physical or verbal threats made to them may lead to arrest or provoke a lawsuit against that individual or congregation, as well as give them the publicity they want."
Donaldson said he planned to send a letter to his own congregation this week to advise members that, although Westboro may not come this weekend, they might come at a later date.
The Westboro Baptist flyer also stated the Kansas church's intention to picket the courthouse and the local schools the next day, Monday.
However, Jan. 19 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday, and the courthouse would be closed.
The day is also a holiday for county and city school students, but teachers will be present at county schools.
Dr. Joe Parkins, Greene County's director of schools, said Tuesday that he has not been contacted by the Kansas church, but is aware of the situation.
Should pickets show up, Parkins said it is his intention not to allow them on school property.
Greeneville's public schools will be closed for the holiday on Monday, with no students or teachers present, a spokesperson for the city schools said Tuesday.