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Pastor: Don't let WBC win

Town meeting at 6 tonight at performing arts center

Managing editor

Marion Christian Church pastor, the Rev. Carl Helm, knows what it’s like to deal with the controversial Westboro Baptist Church and wants residents to know how to deal with the members.

Church members are scheduled to picket at five Marion churches — St. Mark’s Catholic Church-Holy Family Parish, 8 to 8:30 a.m., Marion Presbyterian Church, 9 to 9:30 a.m., Emmanuel Baptist Church and Valley United Methodist Church, 10:10 to 10:40 a.m., and Eastmoor United Methodist Church, 11 to 11:30 a.m.

The other churches in Marion were not named on the Westboro website. The group also plans to picket churches in Goddard, the hometown of Ryan Newell, the wounded veteran accused of stalking the group Nov. 30 in Mulvane and Wichita.

Helm was a minister for five years — 1993 through 1998 — in Auburn, a suburb of Topeka.

In the beginning, Helm said the church group — composed primarily of members of the Fred Phelps family — would picket every Saturday outside malls or other large businesses and every Sunday at churches.

“At that time, their main issue for protesting was homosexuality,” Helm said. “They mainly picketed churches that allowed gay clergy.”

They also typically target denominations — not independent churches.

Helm’s church was not their target but he was familiar with the group because of the close proximity to the community in which he served.

The minister spent many hours trying to figure out what makes the group tick.

“People were aghast (when the group started picketing with signs indicating that God hated homosexuals),” Helm said. “Every single sign had a Bible verse.”

The family formed a church in the basement of a modest home in Topeka. When local people tried to attend the church service, they were turned away. Most of the known members of the church are members of the Phelps family. Some of the family members are doctors and lawyers.

The family now lives in a compound with tall walls and gates.

In the 1990s, the church group targeted funerals of homosexuals who died from AIDS.

When fewer deaths were occurring because of the disease, the Phelps family redirected its focus. They still denounce homosexuality, but they began to protest the military.

“When confronted, they will cuss you out with the vilest language,” Helm said. “They will scream loud enough for all to hear. They’ll threaten you, call you names.”

However, they’ll never cross the line so far to be arrested.

“They know the law probably better than most law enforcement does,” Helm said. “They know exactly what they can do before breaking the law.”

However, that’s what concerns Marion Police Chief Josh Whitwell. Most Marion residents do not know the law as well and may get caught up in the moment.

“I’m calling a town hall meeting to discuss with residents what the law does and doesn’t allow,” he said.

The meeting is at 6 tonight in USD 408 Performing Arts Center, Marion.

“If you don’t give them the attention, you’ll beat them,” Helm said.

Helm also offers this advice:

  • Do not approach them.
  • Do not try to reason with them.
  • Ignore them as best you can.
  • Don’t quote a Bible verse to them. The Bible has no meaning to them.

“The Christian approach is to offer them a cup of coffee,” Helm said, “but don’t. They thrive on attention. They can’t stand people ignoring them.”

The Marion Ministerial Alliance will meet this week to discuss the matter but church services will continue as planned.

“I would love to see every person in town in church Sunday,” he said. “I don’t want to see them stop us from worshiping.

“We know their message is of hate. Our goal this Sunday is a message of love,” Helm said.

Marion High School will be the next target from 7:50 to 8:20 a.m. Tuesday.

The law

The first amendment right to assemble, which includes freedom of speech, was intended to allow people to express their opinions in a peaceful manner.

The city doesn’t have any regulations that specifically address demonstrations or assembly. However, city officials have determined appropriate conduct for the picket line.

According to Whitwell, there will be a designated area for protesters and counter protesters at the churches.

“Screaming and yelling will be considered disorderly conduct,” Whitwell said, and will not be tolerated.

“We want people to remain calm. I encourage people to stay home or go to church as usual,” he said.

Last modified Dec. 9, 2010

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