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Law enforcement prepares for possible protest

COAL GROVE — Following reports that a hate group might protest the funeral of a Coal Grove soldier, local law enforcement agencies are taking precautionary measures to ensure the safety of funeral goers.

The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., has issued a news release calling for followers to protest at the funeral of Justin Allen. Allen, 23, was killed July 18 while serving in Afghanistan. According to the press release, the group believes that God hates America and is killing American soldiers in his wrath. Allen’s funeral will be 11 a.m. today at Dawson-Bryant High School.

Coal Grove Police Chief Eric Spurlock said the department will have a section located off of school property reserved for the group if they decide to show up. The area is located across the street from Clark’s Pump-N-Shop.

The department will have four officers in the area at the time of the funeral. Two deputies from the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office will also be there.

Sheriff’s deputies will escort the family from the funeral to the gravesite.

The family will also be escorted by members of the local American Legion Riders who are riding along with the Patriot Guard, a group made up of mostly former military member motorcycle riders who also escorted the family to the airport when Allen’s body arrived, said Jim Volgares, commander of the American Legion Post 433.

Sheriff Jeff Lawless and Spurlock have spoken with representatives from the Office of Homeland Security about the matter and Lawless said all indications are that no one from the church will show up at the funeral.

“We don’t think anything will happen, but we certainly want to be prepared in case it does,” Lawless said. “Our main goal is we want to make sure that he’s honored for his sacrifice and his family gets the respect that they deserve as well.”

The church had announced its intentions to protest the funeral of a soldier from South Point a few years ago, but the group did not attend, Lawless said.

“We don’t think that they will but you just never know,” he said.

Protesting or picketing within 300 feet of a funeral is against the law in Ohio. The offense is a third degree misdemeanor and Lawless said anyone picketing would be subject to arrest.

The Village of Coal Grove currently doesn’t have an ordinance that requires protestors to register with the village before protesting, but Spurlock said he plans to pursue such legislation when the funeral is over.

While one group wants to protest the funeral, several other local people have decided to honor Allen and his family by lining the streets of Coal Grove and waving American flags.

“We are just hoping that those who are not attending the funeral will line up from the high school entrance in a salute to show thanks, respect and honor to this wonderful young man and his family,” Ironton resident Elizabeth Russell-Melvin said.

Russell-Melvin’s son and Allen graduated high school together. She said the idea to honor Allen in this way came from a friend of hers, Lena Clark. Russell-Melvin has used Facebook and email to spread the word.

“My heart is broken for his family,” Russell-Melvin said. “He gave the ultimate sacrifice but his family also sacrificed because they sacrificed their son.

“I’d love to see 10,000 people down the side of the street. He deserves that. His family deserves that.”