Friday August 31, 2012

NORTH ADAMS -- The Westboro Baptist Church, a group known for its extremist views on homosexuality, has threatened to picket near Saturday's funeral of a U.S. Army soldier, provoking a wave of angst in the community and prompting the mayor to urge "the continued outpouring" of prayers and support for the family.

U.S. Army Pfc. Michael R. DeMarsico II, 20, of North Adams, died Aug. 16 from injuries suffered from an enemy improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, thousands of supporters and mourners lined Route 2 for the motorcade returning his body to North Adams.

By Wednesday night, Kansas-based West boro Baptist Church had published a statement on its website that it intended to bring its message to Saturday's funeral. The WBC also has been known not to show up at military funerals despite its notices, but the prospect still creates worry and often spurs action in the community.

"Our greater community should know that since the notification of Michael's death, a team consisting of the family, the United States Army, the funeral home, the First Baptist Church and the city has been carefully planning all aspects of the funeral proceedings," North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright said in a statement released Thursday. "These plans have been carefully thought out and include provisions to deal with any threat of protest.

"I am asking that all people refrain from any activity other than the continued outpouring of prayers, support and encouragement for Michael and his family.


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Please trust that the family and all officials handling services have taken painstaking efforts to ensure that Michael will be properly honored throughout this entire process."

The WBC pronouncement online spawned at least two Facebook events pages calling people to counter the group's presence and show support and solidarity for the family.

The mayor urged people to show their support as they did on Wednesday, by lining the procession route and attending today's wake, which will be attended by Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, and Saturday's service.

The procession will be by horse-drawn caisson escorted by military personnel. Sup porters are encouraged to wear blue -- the of color the DeMarsico's alma mater, Drury High School -- to further honor the soldier.

The Rev. David Anderson, pastor of the First Baptist Church in North Adams, said that even though the Westboro group shares the word "Baptist," "we as a church do not agree with their stance with this particular issue [funeral protests]."

Anderson said 700 mourners are expected to attend Saturday's services. While he said he prefers there be no demonstrators nearby, church volunteers will be on hand "to extend hospitality to all."

The Eagle contacted counter protest organizers and the Westboro Baptist Church on Thursday to discuss the plans of their respective demonstrations.

Within 12 hours, counter protest organizers Andy Poncherello of Dalton and Shane Bua of North Adams -- neither of whom knew the soldier personally -- said a combined total of nearly 400 people said they would stand in solidarity and support of the DeMarsico family.

"My father, grandfather and uncle served in the military," Poncherello said. "If this happened at one of their funerals, I would have been very upset. I couldn't imagine [the Westboro Baptist Church] going through the length of going across the country to protest a funeral. It's not right."

He said his group's assembly is about supporting the DeMarsicos.

"We have to support our neighbors even if we don't know them," said Poncherello.

"Let this be about the family, and a fallen soldier, not a hate group," Bua, a 2005 Drury High School graduate, posted to his Facebook group.

"I would hope, honestly, that they [the WBC] don't show up, and they get the message from the community that they are not welcome here," Bua told The Eagle.

In addition, Richard J. Keniston, New England Re gional Captain of the Patriot Guard Riders, confirmed that some of their motorcycle riders will be present at the funeral.

"We were invited by the family," Keniston told The Eagle in an email.

Mark Potok, a senior fellow of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that if the objective of counter demonstrators is to diminish the power and press about the WBC, he recommended they "don't have an angry conflict."

Rebekah Phelps-Davis, a member of the Westboro church, confirmed to The Eagle there is a group of WBC demonstrators scheduled to be in North Adams on Saturday.

"A half-dozen or so," Phelps-Davis said, based on availability.

Fred Phelps Jr. runs the Westboro Baptist Church. The group justifies its presence at military funeral by saying "soldiers are dying for the homosexual and other sins of America."

Phelps-Davis added, "Every time we conduct a religious demonstration, we are going to be lawful, we are going to be peaceful, and we are going to cooperate with law enforcement."

She said that counter-protesters also have the duty to do the same.

Earlier this month, Pres ident Barack Obama signed a new law that limits the times and distance of which people can demonstrate at a military funeral -- a minimum of 300 feet either two hours before or two hours after the service.

The American Civil Lib erties Union and the WBC are examining the constitutionality of both the federal and state laws regarding these limitations and are considering legal action.

To reach Jenn Smith:
jsmith@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6239
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink


Calling hours ...

For Michael R. DeMarsico II:

Today: Calling hours will be from 2 to 7 p.m. at Flynn & Dagnoli-Montagna Home for Funerals, West Chapels, 521 West Main St., North Adams.

Saturday: Funeral services and a celebration of Pfc. DeMarsi co's life will be held at 11 a.m. at the First Baptist Church, 131 Main St. in North Adams.

The procession route will begin at the funeral home and will continue up West Main Street, to Main Street, to the church.

Burial will follow the service at Southview Cemetery. The procession route will begin at the church, head north on Eagle Street past Veterans Memorial Park to Route 2, to Holden Street, to American Legion Drive, to Ashland Street, to Southview Cemetery.

There will be a reception immediately following the services at the St. Elizabeth's Parish Center on St. Anthony Drive, North Adams.

Please be advised that on the day of the funeral, general traffic along the above mentioned routes will be detoured to alternative routes and there may be periods of heavy congestion.