Protesters from the radical Westboro Baptist Church are accusing Charleston police of not protecting them from a large group of counter-protesters who were awaiting the Topeka, Kansas-based church group.
The small group of six protesters from Westboro Baptist Church showed up in Charleston, West Virginia on Thursday morning carrying signs with inflammatory messages like, "Thank God for Dead Miners" and "God Hates West Virginia." The group from Westboro was in town to blame the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine accident on America's tolerance for homosexuality.
But awaiting the radical group was well-organized group of 300 or more counter-protesters who proceeded to shadow the Westboro group as they made their way around the area of the Statehouse in Charleston.
In an email to Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster on Thursday night, Westboro Baptist Church member Margie Phelps wrote that Charleston Police put the Westboro protesters in danger by letting "people with violent intentions set upon [them]."
In the email, Phelps said the counter-protesters were "jostling them, kicking them, and even trying to set on fire the hair of one of them."
Phelps, an attorney, is also the daughter of Westboro Baptist Church's controversial leader, Fred Phelps.
Ms. Phelps added that it is the "sworn duty to not permit hecklers and violent people stop [the Westboro protesters'] exercise of the right of free speech and religion, just because you or your officers disagree with the religious message of this group."
"If you fail in this regard [to protect us], we will hold each of your responsible," wrote Phelps, adding, "You are all put fully on notice hereby."
Mayor Danny Jones defended the actions of the police, reports Rick Steelhammer in The Charleston Gazette. Mayor Jones said there was no indication that the group from Westboro was ever in danger from the 300 or so counter-protesters:
"No one's been hurt. As far as anyone kicking them or trying to set their hair on fire, we don't believe that's true. I think we're providing them with as much protection as they'll receive anywhere in the country, and we'll continue to protect them until they find another city to move on to."
Mayor Jones added that his libertarian instincts make him want to protect everyone's rights. "But, whew! I hope they leave soon," said Jones.
"I feel badly for those kids. To have them raised in an environment like that is sad and scary."