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Community reacts to controversial church protesting Wilmington soldier's funeral

READ MORE: Community reacts to controversial church protesting Wilmington soldier's funeral
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WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) -- A controversial church group known for protesting military funerals says it will come to the Cape Fear to protest the funeral of a Wilmington soldier killed last week in Afghanistan.

"Our military fights for the freedom of ridiculous individuals to air their dirty laundry," says Tom Russell, the founder of Step Up For Soldiers.

A news release on the website of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS, lists Sgt. T.J. Butler, 25, of Wilmington, on its latest "Roster of the Damned." The release says "Thank God for 18 more dead troops." Two other North Carolina soldiers killed with Butler in a suicide attack in a market in the eastern Afghanistan city of Khost Monday are also listed among the 18 fallen service members.

For years, Westboro Baptist Church has claimed America's war dead are God's punishment for the country embracing homosexuality. According to the release, church members say, "We will picket their funerals in their home towns (sic) in respectful and lawful proximity thereof."

The small community of Hampstead, where Butler is from has stepped up in support of him and his family. Several businesses along Highway 17 have put up signs in support.

"Everywhere," says Jeremy Sawyer, a close friend of Butler. "Putting up signs for the family and for him. Praying for him."

"He was very well known here, very well loved," says Candice Nettell, who works at the Wild Hawg Saloon in Hampstead. "A lot of people are very upset about it."

"What I'd like to know is who's going to give them lodging here and who's going to rent them a car," Russell says. "We all have to stay vigilent. That's the only way we can defend ourselves and not sell ourselves to other people. We don't want them here. Don't lodge them here.In August, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law that, among many other things, restricts protesters from gathering within 300 feet of a military funeral two hours before or two hours after a funeral service has taken place."

According to a his obituary published Saturday in the StarNews, Sgt. Butler's funeral arrangements are being handled by Andrews Mortuary in Wilmington. The funeral home's website says arrangements cannot be made until Butler's body returns to Wilmington from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. He arrived there earlier this week.

Friends of Butler say his family is still waiting to bring his body back home to North Carolina and believe his funeral will most likely take place Wednesday or Thursday.

Matt Wall, the president of Rolling Thunder Chapter 3 in Wilmington, says he has been in contact with the Butler family, who is requesting as much support and involvement from veteran/military groups as possible.

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