Vail Valley churches, law enforcement plan for protests by Westboro Baptist Church
EAGLE COUNTY — The Vail Valley is usually a pretty peaceful place. A controversial church believes it can disrupt some of that peace this weekend.
The Westboro Baptist Church has put several valley churches on its schedule for protests on Saturday, June 23, and Sunday, June 24. The protest schedule is limited to the interfaith chapels at Vail and Beaver Creek, as well as a pair of churches in Avon.
With the schedule posted on the group’s website, local police and clergy have been talking about the best way to handle the announced protests. The consensus seems to be: Leave these people alone.
Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek said he and other local law enforcement officials have met with local clergy to talk about how, or if, to respond to the protests.
Vail Police have been active on the Eagle County Classifieds Facebook page entry on the topic, urging residents to simply leave the protesters alone.
“We’ve talked to the churches affected, and some of the folks wanting to counter-protest,” van Beek said. The main message has been “don’t get yourself in trouble” over this, he added.
Protesting and counter-protesting is fine on public property, but local police will be on hand at all scheduled protest sites to keep the peace.
Business as usual
Ministers and churches say they’re going to focus on what’s going on inside their churches, not any activity outside.
Covenant Presbyterian Church worships at the Vail and Beaver Creek chapels and is one of the targeted congregations.
The Rev. Tim Wilbanks said he’s been telling members of that congregation to focus on the worship service.
Wilbanks has been giving a series of sermons on love of community and love for our brothers and sisters — living the life of the biblical Good Samaritan, which teaches believers to love without discrimination.
At the New Life Assembly of God in Avon, Rev. Dan Matney said he doesn’t really have any reaction to word of protests outside that church.
“People are going to do what they’re going to do,” Matney said. “We’re not changing our program at all.”
The Vail Church in Avon released a statement on the planned protest that reads, in part, “We have no idea why Westboro Baptist Church intends to picket our church or any of the other valley churches. That is not our concern. Our concern is to remain focused on the tremendous work of God that is taking place at (the church).”
Balancing everyone’s rights
People contacted for this story also all talked about this country’s First Amendment, which details the right to free expression and freedom of belief.
“They’re exercising their First Amendment rights, and we’re going to do that, too,” Wilbanks said.
That’s a balance, van Beek said, adding that people he’s talked to have been “very receptive” to keeping the peace.
The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration hasn’t been targeted for a protest, but congregation leader Rev. Brooks Keith said he’s been in on the discussions about them.
“I’m so impressed by our community leaders when they work together — with law enforcement and clergy working as a team,” Keith said. “I’m very proud of those leaders.”
Keith, like other local officials, is hoping for a peaceful weekend, adding that the people from Westboro “are experts in soliciting a response. Ignore them completely, ignore them utterly.”
Keith was also unsparing in his opinion of Westboro.
“They are neither Baptist, nor in any way a church as we understand the term. They are a hate group masquerading as a religious entity to have protection for their vile and hateful agenda,” he said.
In the valley, the Kansas-based group “is protesting some of the finest pastors, rabbis and people of faith I’ve ever known,” Keith added. “The best revenge (for the protests) is being who we are — being a great community.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-748-2930.