Threats of protests by Westboro Baptist Church have a Lehigh Valley congregation uneasy and police planning extra patrols on Sunday.
Folk are "a little ill at ease" said First Baptist Church secretary Kim Nemeth, who learned of the planned protest from police on Tuesday. Officials don't want people to feel inhibited when they come to worship at the South Whitehall church, she said.
Westboro says it is planning to stage protests at four Lehigh Valley churches including the Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena, according to a press release posted on the group's website.
Diocesan spokesman Matthew Kerr told Patch on Wednesday that he's aware of the protest but offered no further comment.
"Often they don't show. We're hoping that occurs," said South Whitehall Police Lt. John Christman. He and township Manager Jon Hammer met with the pastors at the targeted churches in South Whitehall about the matter on Tuesday.
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If Westboro does picket, authorities will "let them do what they do," Christman said. "Let them have their protest." However police would need to take appropriate action if they block roadways, he said.
Christman said the police department will likely have extra patrol cars and undercover officers on duty. He said he heard counter protests may be planned.
The press release says the protests will target "whorehouses masquerading as churches" and lists the following times and locations:
- 8:30 to 9 a.m.: St Paul's Anglican, 2510 Livingston St.
- 9:05 to 9:30 a.m.: Asbury Church, 1533 Springhouse Rd.
- 9:50 to 10 a.m.: Cathedral of St. Catharine, 210 N. 18th St.
- 10:30 to 11 a.m.: First Baptist Church, 1808 N. 19th St.
When asked why First Baptist may have been targeted, Pastor Chuck Reed said, "We're an old Baptist church and I think they assume we're a liberal church."
But, he said, "We're conservative evangelical. We're not liberal at all."
He said Westboro seemed to hit four corners of theology in the churches they are targeting on Sunday—Baptist, Methodist, Catholic and Anglican.
He said First Baptist Church does not support Westboro's views but is not worried about their visit. "We've been praying for them," Reed said.
"We're a Biblically driven, local evangelical church ... and we just love people. We worship God as a community."
Kansas-based Westboro is an independent Baptist church known for its extreme opposition to homosexuality and its protests at military funerals.
An online petition to classify Westboro as a hate group and revoke its federal tax-exempt status has gained close to 74,000 signatures.