Protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church hold up signs on Jan. 23, 2011 before the premiere of Kevin Smith's "Red State" at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Smith's new horror movie is inspired by the infamous Kansas church.

Hate group plans protests in Atlanta, Gainesville on Super Bowl Sunday

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.

All six of the churches the group plans to picket on the morning of Feb. 3 are in Gainevsville, the Hall County city about 60 miles northeast of Atlanta — where Super Bowl LIII will kickoff 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. 

MORE SUPER BOWL COVERAGE: With Saints a win away from Atlanta, Falcons fans fret

The preparations for Westboro’s planned visit are 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 Feb. 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.”

In a statement emailed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution late Saturday, Gainesville police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said his 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.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.