Westboro Baptist Church picketers verbally clashed with counter-protesters Sunday over very different interpretations of the Bible outside five local churches, but no violence occurred amid a strong police presence.
Kansas-based Westboro Baptist is known for picketing churches, soldiers' funerals and other events with signs such as "Thank God for IEDs" and "God hates fags."
Nine members of the church protested for 30 minutes at each of the five churches: Concord Baptist, Capital West Christian, Fairgrounds Road Church of Christ, Bible Baptist and Cathedral of St. Joseph. Jefferson City was one of three locations the group picketed Sunday; two other Westboro groups were in Florida.
They said the churches, along with most all other Christian churches, "preach the twin lies that God loves everyone (Psalm 5:5), and that God is not sovereign, but rather that man has free-will (Romans 9)," according to a news release from the group.
"What we're doing is crying against the altars, which is what the scripture says," Westboro elder Steve Drain said. "When you're crying against the altars, what you're doing is you're exhorting these preachers, these pastors, to tell the truth. And in these pulpits, we know there's a lot of lies being preached."
One such lie, he said, is God loves everyone. "If God loves everyone, there's no consequence for sin. If the Lord Jesus Christ hung on that tree and died for everybody who's ever been born, then who goes to hell?"
After the event, Jake Carlisle, assistant pastor of Bible Baptist Church, said: "I just think it's pretty foolish to believe what they believe and participate in what they participate in. Because if they don't believe that God loves sinners, then they can't believe in the same God that we believe in."
Some of both the protesters and counter-protesters accused each other of cherry-picking the Bible to suit their needs.
Jefferson City Police Chief Roger Schroeder previously urged local residents to ignore the Westboro group, and most people did. In total, about nine counter-protesters showed up at one or more of the locations.
Motorists driving by reacted with curiosity. Occasionally, they shouted profanities or raised middle fingers toward the group.
One counter-protester who followed the group to each location was Steve Thoenen, who routinely counter-protests when the group comes to town. Dressed as a clown with a rainbow wig, he engaged in lively arguments with Westboro members.
"You bring hate to my city, and that's unacceptable!" Thoenen said to Drain.
"No, we're preaching against sin, that's what we're supposed to do!" Drain responded.
"No, you're preaching hate! I have all sorts of friends in this town that are gay and transgender," Thoenen said, before Drain interrupted: "Of course you do!"
"Yeah, of course I do, because I love all of God's creations," Thoenen retorted. Later, he told a reporter: "I'm here to conquer hate with love. I have a lot of friends who are every color of the rainbow."
Representatives from each of the churches thanked the Jefferson City Police Department and Cole County Sheriff's Department for their strong presence. JCPD alone had seven uniformed officers and other plain-clothed officers at each location.
Officers watched from across the street as protesters and counter-protesters often stood side by side. No arrests were made, and the only action seen was police instructing counter-protesters to stay out of the streets while in front of Memorial Park, across from St. Joseph Cathedral.
At Bible Baptist Church, the youth group was preparing to give Snickers candy bars to fathers on Father's Day during church service. They saw the protest through the church windows, and one of the youth said: "Why don't we give candy bars to the officers?"
Close to a dozen members of the church youth group ran out to give extra candy bars to JCPD officers and Cole County deputies to show appreciation for their presence at the protest.
Carlisle said it was a "unique opportunity" that arose for the youths to "be able to give back, even if it was something small like that."
Friends Aileen Champlain and Blue Petty followed Westboro members at the different locations with banners that read: "Caution: hate group" and "Westboro isn't a church."
Petty, who is transgender, felt discriminated against in school and came to counter-protest Westboro's anti-gay stance.
Champlain said the counter-protest was successful.
"I don't believe it's right to come here and bring hate to Jeff City," Champlain said. "I'm not straight, but I don't think that should be a sin. God says to love each other, so why not?"