A spokesman for Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., said church supporters will conduct a protest at Pine Bluff Saturday near the location of the funeral for Army Sgt. Michael Strachota, 28, a Pine Bluff native who died June 24 while serving in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Patriot Guard Riders, an organization of motorcycle enthusiasts and others from throughout the United States, announced this week that they will also be present at the funeral at the request of the family to shield them from any protest actions. They will be at the site at 1 p.m.
Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Pine Bluff. Graveside services with full military honors will follow at Clement Cemetery near Grapevine.
Born in Pine Bluff, Strachota attended Trinity Episcopal School, Subiaco Academy and graduated from Pine Bluff High School in 2002. He was a member of St. Joseph.
Westboro Baptist has picketed at hundreds of funerals of military personnel who died in combat.
“This message to be preached in respectful, lawful proximity to the memorial of Sgt. Michael J. Strachota Saturday, July 7, at 1:15 p.m. (at) St. Joseph Catholic Church, 412 W. 6th Ave., Pine Bluff,” a press release issued by Westboro Baptist said.
“Sgt. Strachota gave his life for the constitutional right of (Westboro Baptist Church) to warn America,” the statement added. “To deny us our First Amendment rights is to declare to the world that Sgt. Strachota died in vain, and that America is a nation of sodomite hypocrites.”
Capt. Greg Shapiro of the Pine Bluff Police Department said the department was aware of the planned Westboro protest and police personnel would be present at St. Joseph. He declined to elaborate on what steps the department planned to take at the protest.
Major Lafayette Woods Jr., operations commander for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, said his office provided an escort Thursday when Strachota’s body arrived at Grider Field from Dover Air Force Base.
Woods said Pine Bluff police will be responsible for providing an escort and security at the church Saturday, adding that the sheriff’s department will respond if additional manpower is requested.
Westboro Baptist church’s website cites “6,514 soldiers that God has killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The Patriot Guard Riders were formed in 2005 in response to the Westboro Baptist Church protesters as a way to shield the families of deceased veterans from the protest, according to their website.
The PGR says in its mission statement that it attends the funeral services of fallen Americans as invited guests of the family.
A statement on The PGR Forum states:
“The family of Sgt. Strachota invites the Patriot Guard Riders to join them in honor and remembrance of their loved one. Sgt. Strochota died on June 24th while serving his country in Afghanistan. He also served a tour of duty in Iraq in 2009. Sgt. Strochota leaves behind a wife and son plus other family members and a lot of friends.”
The PGR will meet at the church at 1 p.m. and set up a flag line until service begins. They will also escort the family to Clement Cemetery in Grant County.
Staff writer Michael S. Lee contributed to this article.