Hate group plans protest in Atlanta for Super Bowl

On Super Bowl Sunday, members of Westboro Baptist Church — the Kansas-based hate group infamous for picketing everything from gay pride parades to the funerals of slain soldiers — intend to hold protests at several North Georgia churches and outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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All six of the churches the group plans to picket on the morning of Feb. 3 are in Gainesville, the Hall County city about 60 miles northeast of Atlanta, where the 2019 Super Bowl will kick off inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium around 6:30 p.m. the same day.

According to a "picketing schedule" on Westboro Baptist Church's website, the group plans to be outside of the stadium between 3 and 5 p.m. No further details were immediately available.

Protesters from the church, which is comprised largely of family members of late founder Fred Phelps, have visited the sites of many previous Super Bowls and other large sporting events. Church members planned protests at the college basketball Final Four in Atlanta in 2013.

Atlanta Police Department spokesman Carlos Campos said his agency was aware of Westboro’s plans.

“Part of our security plan includes preparation for demonstrations and protests,” Campos said.

Atlanta officials have spent months — and millions of dollars — preparing to host the Super Bowl, which is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city.

The preparations for Westboro’s planned visit are on a much smaller scale in Gainesville, the city of about 40,000 that lies well outside of the Super Bowl’s sphere of influence.

But city officials there said they’ll be ready, too.

In half-hour intervals between 8 and 11 a.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, Westboro said it plans to visit each of the following churches: First Baptist Church of Gainesville; St. John Baptist Church; First Presbyterian Church Gainesville; St. Michael Roman Catholic Church; Grace Episcopal Church; and Good Shepherd Church.

The Times of Gainesville, which first reported on Westboro's plans there, wrote that the church explained its motives in a Jan. 15 letter to Gainesville police Chief Carol Martin. A representative from the church reportedly wrote that the visit will be "for public demonstration/outdoor religious services regarding the judgment of God with respect to the dangers of promoting homosexuality, same-sex marriage, the filthy manner of life and idol-worshipping of this nation."

Officials from Gainesville did not immediately respond to inquiries from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Saturday. Gainesville police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Holbrook told The Times that the agency was "working with the organizers to ensure the short lived schedule of events are safe for all parties involved."

The churches on Westboro’s picket list were making preparations, too.

In a video posted on YouTube, the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham, from Grace Episcopal Church, encouraged members to attend services that day and to bring friends — and not to engage with protesters.

Higginbotham said he planned to have the church’s bells ring continuously during the 30 minutes Westboro members are expected to be outside.

“I will peal them for the entire time that they are here,” Higginbotham said. “For the sound of those bells, which is a symbol of God’s love, drowns out the hate.”

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