Pastor denied use of gazebo for prayer event

The Town of Franklin allowed a Black Lives Matter protest at the gazebo in June while the state was still in Phase 2.

Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer

The Back the Blue event drew hundreds to the downtown area on July 30, more than a month before the partial easing of restrictions by Gov. Roy Cooper.

Michael Stephens, pastor for Franklin Church of God, spoke to the town council of Franklin Monday night at its monthly meeting asking to reserve the Gazebo in conjunction with Franklin Graham’s National Prayer March scheduled to occur Washington DC on Sept. 26. Stephens noted that dozens of pastors will be coming together for the event to pray for the nation. The event is also scheduled to include music from Mountain Faith as well as several guest speakers. 

Stephens submitted his request for the event, which has been dubbed Faith, Family, and Freedom, four weeks ago and requested the town to consider approving his permit to utilize the Gazebo as they had done earlier this year for Black Lives Matters events as well as the Back the Blue Rally.

The event would also collect canned food for local families in need. However, the town of Franklin denied Stephens’ request and voted to no longer allow use of the space until after North Carolina lifts the current State of Emergency due to COVID19.

Town Manager Summer Woodard informed the board that due to an increase in requests, reservations to utilize the space have been frozen for the last several weeks, not permitting the public to use the space. According to Woodard, two events are scheduled for the Gazebo, one that was approved back in February by the board and another that was submitted over a month ago for Constitution Day, for which the board voted to approve Tuesday night.

Woodard said that the Gazebo has always been used frequently, with one to two requests from community and civic groups a month, however since COVID, the town has seen a significant increase in groups requesting to use the space.

“Since COVID we are seeing one to two requests a week for the space,” said Woodard. “That is why we wanted to get some clear direction from town attorney and this board as to how to handle Gazebo reservations going forward.”

Town Attorney John Henning Jr., recommended placing a moratorium on the use of the Gazebo for as long as there is a State of Emergency declared, to prohibit anyone other than the town from using the space.

Addressing free speech concerns, Henning noted that the county has designated the courthouse plaza a “free speech” zone, which allows anyone to gather to express their views and be heard, the town however, has not done the same for the Town Gazebo.

Council member Joe Collins requested to allow the continued use of the space for up to 50 people, as allowed under the current state Executive Order — however Henning noted that ensuring those guidelines are followed is taxing on the town.

Mayor Bob Scott said that his concern is that if you allow one group, you have to allow all or if you deny one, you have to deny all of them.

Council member David Culpepper said that he was under the assumption the town’s permitting process was strictly for scheduling issues and to ensure multiple events aren’t attempting to use the space at the same time and that he wasn’t comfortable limiting the use of the area for residents.

The Town of Franklin voted to issue a moratorium on reservations for the space and to only permit two events that had received prior board approval to be held.

Stephens noted after the meeting that he was disappointed that the town would not approve the request for the Faith, Family, and Freedom event be held at the Gazebo but that the event will still be held on Sept. 26 at a different location.

Town approves new K9 for police department

Franklin Police Chief Bill Harrell spoke to the Town Council regarding the rebirth of the town’s K9 program.

Chief Harrell proposed spending $18,000 to establish the program, which covers the cost of a new K9 for the department. After the initial expenditure, Chief Harrell said that it would cost an additional $1,000 per year for veterinary visits and food for the K9. Chief Harrell said the community groups have stepped up to support a K9 for the police department and have donated or pledged to cover the initial expense.

The Franklin Police Department had a K9 several years ago, but when the K9 finished his service in 2009, the department elected not to replace it at that time. Since then, the Franklin Police Department have relied on the assistance of the Macon County Sheriff’s Department, which has four K9s.

“The most recent example is when we had an offender speed through Franklin and then exited the vehicle on foot,” said Chief Harrell. “The Macon County Sheriff’s Department K9 could only last 15 minutes in the heat of that day, and we didn’t have anything to assist them for that search.”

Chief Harrell, who served as the Chief of the Highlands Police Department prior to accepting the job in Franklin three months ago, said that the K9s with the Highlands Police Department were invaluable.

Town Council member Jack Horton said that the suspect that was apprehended using the K9 Chief Harrell was near his home and knowing the benefit K9s have in law enforcement he supported the addition to the department.

Joe Collins asked Chief Harrell if the department had plans for the future of a K9 program within the town to which Chief Harrell informed him that additional residents have expressed interest in donating and helping to fund a second K9 as well as providing funding for the care of the dogs so they do become an added expense to the town.

The Town of Franklin voted unanimously to allow Chief Harrell to move forward with establishing a K9 program.

Update: ”FAITH, FAMILY and FREEDOM RALLY” will be held Saturday, Sept. 26, from 12 to 2 p.m., in the parking lot of The Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin. This event is being held in conjunction with “The Return” national prayer event in Washington DC. Local pastors will be leading prayer. Madison Cawthorne, candidate for the 11th Congressional district, and North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby will be speaking, and “Mountain Faith” will be leading worship. This is a Christian event of worship, prayer, and devotions from the Word of God to highlight the role of Christian faith in community and government.