Funeral Protest

Shirley Phelps-Roper, left, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, Kan., holds a protest sign outside the April 2006 funeral services for Sgt. Daniel Sesker in Ogden, Iowa. Westboro Baptist Church announced Wednesday by press release that it intends to demonstrate at Owatonna High School and several local churches in early February. (AP file photo)

OWATONNA — A notorious Christian protest organization has announced plans to demonstrate in Owatonna next month.

The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., announced by press release Wednesday that members will “peacefully preach Jesus Christ, with great zeal, love and fervor,” at four Owatonna churches on the morning of Feb. 4. The following morning, members will demonstrate again outside Owatonna High School.

Westboro Baptist Church is famous for holding protests at churches, military funerals and other events to denounce America as sinful, and in particular to denounce homosexuality. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”

In their press releases, the group accuses parents and teachers of pampering students to justify their own “idolatry, fornication, adultery, murder and homosexuality”; and denounces mainstream religious leaders, saying “churches abound in 2018 America, yet hard, Jesus-style preaching cannot be found.”

The church did not respond to a message inquiring why Owatonna in particular was chosen for a protest. However, the church’s website shows it is also scheduled to protest on the afternoon of Feb. 4 at the Super Bowl in Minneapolis.

Westboro intends to protest at Bethel Church, Trinity Lutheran Church, St. Joseph Parish and Sacred Heart Parish. Todd Buegler, senior pastor at Trinity Lutheran, said he was not aware of Westboro’s plans until contacted by the Press, but said he expects to proceed with services as normal.

“To be honest, we haven’t had a chance to meet and talk and develop a strategy, but we’re going to do what we always do,” he said. “We’re going to hold worship, welcome people, share God’s love and have the sacraments, just like always.”

Buegler said other Christians completely reject Westboro’s beliefs.

“Their beliefs are in polar opposition to what Jesus teaches and how Jesus lived,” he said. “We believe Jesus’ life and teachings were about love and acceptance and transformation and welcome, and that’s not what they are about.”

Senior Pastor Michael Simmerman at Bethel Church said he’d been surprised to hear about Westboro’s plans, but said it made a certain amount of sense.

“We don’t agree with the beliefs that they espouse, so from that perspective, maybe their stop isn’t surprising at all,” he said. “Maybe it means we’re doing something right.”

Simmerman said he planned to address the question of how God truly feels about sinners in that day’s service.

“Whether they’re there or not, or whether it’s dramatic or not, our plan is to take that day to dig into what the Bible really says,” he said.

A Diocese of Winona referred a press inquiry to Fr. John Sauer of Sacred Heart, who issued a short statement via email.

“There are reports that the Westboro Baptist Church will be protesting several churches in Owatonna on Super Bowl Sunday as well as Owatonna High School on the following Monday,” he wrote. “At this point we are concerned with the safety and well-being of our parishioners and the community. We will be reaching out to the other churches involved as well as the High School to discuss what an appropriate response might be.”

Owatonna Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Elstad said he also had not heard about the planned demonstration, but said the school would be focused on the safety and education of its students.

“If they’re protesting across the street, quite honestly, there’s not a lot we can do about it,” he said. “They may decide to protest and we’re going to continue to have school as we would normally have school on that day. We are going to be obviously protecting our students, so we won’t let any protesters come on our school campus, because we want our students to be able to come to school safely.”

William Morris is a reporter for the Owatonna People’s Press. He can be reached at 444-2372; follow him on Twitter @OPPWilliam

City government and public safety reporter for the Owatonna People's Press

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