HOULTON, Maine — The Houlton Police Department is dispelling rumors that a church known for protesting military funerals will be in town this morning to protest at the funeral of a Smyrna Marine.
The funeral of First Lt. James Zimmerman will take place at 11 a.m. today at Houlton High School. He was killed in Afghanistan on Nov. 2. The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., has spawned public outrage for holding up anti-gay signs during funerals for service members and calling the deaths God’s judgment for what the group believes is the nation’s tolerance of gays.
Houlton Police Chief Butch Asselin said Wednesday evening that he received numerous calls from within and outside of Maine about the possibility of people associated with the church arriving in Houlton on Thursday to protest.
He said that he spoke to other law enforcement sources who told him that representatives of the church always call the local Police Department to notify them that they are coming and ask for a permit.
“To date, no one from this organization, or any other, has contacted the Police Department,” Asselin said. “All permits have to be signed by the chief of police.”
The rumor began gaining ground on the social networking site Facebook after church officials issued a press release last week saying they would protest at the funeral. The church has sent the Bangor Daily News similar press releases before the funerals of all Aroostook County and northern Penobscot County soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they have never materialized.
News outlets were reporting Wednesday evening that police in the Washington, D.C., area were organizing security in light of the church’s announcement that they would spend Veterans Day protesting at Arlington National Cemetery and George Washington University. While the press release related to Zimmerman’s funeral is on the church’s website, the funeral is not on its picketing schedule.
Asselin also stressed that church officials indicate on their website that they will be protesting in Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day.
“Again, the Houlton Police Department feels it is unlikely that representatives of the Westboro Baptist Church will arrive in Houlton on Thursday to demonstrate,” said Asselin.
He noted that police are expecting a huge turnout for the funeral and that parking is limited at Houlton High School. Those attending the funeral are encouraged to park in Community Park or at St. Mary’s Catholic Church.