June 17th, 2011
05:58 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN)–When Westboro Baptist Church protesters roll into any given town, most places don't exactly put out the welcome mat, until this Sunday.
"This False Prophet and His Blind Lemmings Welcome You to Our Whore House for God's Grace and Free Donuts," Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle announced on his blog this week after learning that Westboro plans to picket one of his churches on Father's Day.
Driscoll is a popular pastor in the Pacific Northwest. He heads a group of multisite churches that regularly draw 10,000 parishioners a week across 10 locations. He preaches live at one location, and his sermons are sent out by video to the other locations the following week, when the services are held with live music and another onsite pastor.
Driscoll, a popular author and speaker, is "Christian-famous," which appears to have led to the protest.
Driscoll found out about it when someone posted a link on his Facebook wall.
"At first I thought maybe it was a joke," Driscoll said. "A church picketing a church seems peculiar."
In turns out it was not a joke, so Driscoll said his church plan to roll out the welcome mat.
"They need Jesus too, maybe as bad as anyone on the Earth. As a church, we're called to love people. They're people, so they make the list."
Some towns have gone so far as to create laws barring Westboro Baptist Church from protesting military funerals. Bikers have shown up with huge American flags and revved their engines to drown out their shouts, and counterprotesters have donned giant angel wings to block the protesters from the mourners' view.
"We need to be nice to these people, go out shake their hands, say hi, give them a bite to eat, cup of coffee and just try to be friendly and nice. The last thing I want is for our people to get into a shouting match with a bunch of crazies," Driscoll said.
Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro was started by Fred Phelps in 1955 and is best known for protesting soldiers' funerals carrying signs that say "God Hates Fags," and "Thank God for dead soldiers." It says on its website that it is an "Old School (or, Primitive) Baptist Church," though it has no known ties to any broader national Baptist denomination.
Phelps told CNN in 2006, "You can't preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God."
The church's membership is small and mainly made of Phelps family members.
They are regularly sued for defamation but often win those cases. Last year, one such case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the justices upheld their right to free speech. One of Phelps' daughters, a Harvard Law-trained attorney, represented the family before the court.
Its website, Godhatesfags.com, says the church will picket the Mars Hill Church site in Auburn, Washington. Mars Hill officials said that probably means their Federal Way campus, where about 600 people come to services each week.
Detective Jeff Kappel, a Seattle Police Department spokesman, said officers know the church is coming Sunday and said their city is more than familiar with protesters of all sorts.
"We're not going to infringe on anyone's First Amendment rights as long as no one is violating the law. If they're protesting peacefully within the bounds of the law, they're more than welcome to express their First Amendment rights."
Westboro Baptist said in the announcement about the protest that it is picketing Mars Hill Church because "they teach the lies that God love (sic) everyone and Jesus died for the sins of all of mankind. You have caused the people to trust in lies to their destruction, and to your damnation."
"For us, we do believe in judgment, but we believe God is the one who judges ultimately," Driscoll said. Some moral judgments along the way notwithstanding, he said, "whether or not people are going to go to heaven or hell, that's God's judgment, not our judgment. Ultimately, heaven is God's house. He gets to determine the guest list."
Driscoll said the sermon this week will be pre-taped, in part so he can attend a baseball tournament his son is playing in. The message, he said, comes from the Gospel of Luke and is about Zacchaeus, a crooked tax collector who found redemption.
"He was a total con man. Jesus became friends with him, and he became a Christian. Then his heart changed, and he paid everyone back he had ripped off and made a public apology," Driscoll explained. The religious leaders of the day weren't thrilled, he said.
"They were all basically protesting that Jesus loved this guy. He didn't deserve to be loved. The point is, no one is. Jesus loves just because he's loving, not because we're lovable."
Therein lies the difference between Mars Hill Church's theology and Westboro.
"It's kind of funny," Driscoll said. "They're showing up on the Sunday where the story is, Jesus loved a really bad guy, and the religious people stood around and protested."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.