Topeka — A patrol lieutenant was concerned about a potential counter-protest in refusing to allow people conducting a rally last week against Gov. Sam Brownback attending a prayer gathering to bring flagpoles onto Statehouse grounds, the head of the Kansas Highway Patrol's Capitol Police said.
The Kansas Equality Commission said it's not fair that its members were told they couldn't carry mounted flags at their rally Friday, when other groups had been allowed to carry mounted flags and signs at their rallies. KEC Chairman Thomas Witt became angry Friday when told about the flagpole issue and demanded to be shown the law that prohibited flagpoles.
Capitol Police Capt. Marc McCune said his officers have the authority to keep people from bringing the flagpoles onto Capitol grounds if they think they may present a danger, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported Tuesday.
McCune said members of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church held their own rally across the street in front of the state judicial building while the KEC held its rally, and that was a factor in the decision. Westboro Baptist is known for its anti-homosexual protests across the country, and McCune said the officer in charge thought the situation warranted extra precautions.
The Capitol Police commander said there's a difference between an event, a protest and a rally, and that sometimes they're treated differently. All rallies or protests sponsored by private organizations or individuals are subject to the same rules, McCune said, and Capitol Police officers did ask some people at an anti-abortion rally earlier this year to remove their flagpoles and sticks.
All groups seeking to hold an event at the Statehouse or other state building are required to fill out an application found on the Department of Administration's web site. The application includes the policies regarding the activities, including restrictions on hanging, nailing or placing anything within the capitol complex.
Brownback's spokeswoman, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, said the policy was put in place in January 2009 because of ongoing renovation to the Statehouse that forced the relocation of inside events. She said the administration made no changes to the policy and that law enforcement was given the authority to further restrict activities during events to protect public safety.
The governor was the target of the rally because of his intention to attend a prayer rally in August in Houston hosted by Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Witt said the rally started later than the 3 p.m. announced time, and that his group was ordered not to use flagpoles before the church protesters arrived at 3:30 p.m. Members of both groups stood on opposite sides of the street and exchanged chants, slogans and hymns.
Tim Phelps, a member of the church and the son of its pastor, Fred Phelps, said that was the first contact of the day between the groups.
One of the featured speakers at the KEC rally was Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point graduate who was discharged from the Army in 2010 for being gay and violating the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Phelps said church members have communicated with Choi through social media, but the exchanges haven't been hostile, adding that the exchange Friday between the two groups wasn't hostile.