It was billed as part Christmas celebration, part peaceful protest, and at the end of the day, it seemed the two went hand-in-hand for local Republicans who gathered at the Smoky Mountain Events Center.

A press release went out to local media earlier this week from the Smoky Mountain Republican Women out of Swain County announcing the group was teaming up with Haywood County Republicans to host a Can’t “Coop”-Up Christmas Celebration, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the group’s defiance of Gov. Roy Cooper’s requests that people distance themselves during the holidays to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The event featured prayer, food, the national anthem, a Bible reading and brief speeches about religion and liberty alike. About 75 people showed up, and most stayed for the duration of the program.

Event organizer and President of Smoky Mountain Women Charlene Hogue said she got the idea for the event once she saw county parties across the region canceling their Christmas parties due to COVID-19.

County Attorney Frank Queen said decisions regarding the event center are made by its own independent board, meaning the county serves as a “landlord” for the grounds and doesn’t have direct oversight. But he noted that the event falls under an exemption as noted in Gov. Cooper’s most recent executive order. Either way, it’s protected by the First Amendment due to its celebration of a religious holiday, he said.

“Worship, religious, and spiritual gatherings, funeral ceremonies, wedding ceremonies, and other activities constituting the exercise of First Amendment rights are exempt from all the requirements of this Executive Order, notwithstanding any other provision of this Executive Order,” that order reads.

The event featured a poor man’s supper, as well as a host of guest speakers, including Jim Davis, who was honored for his 10 years serving in the state senate, and Mark Delk, the man chosen to be the president of the state’s electoral college, who spoke of the importance of the college itself.

COVID concerns

Certain safety precautions were observed. There was hand sanitizer at the entrance, and those serving food wore gloves and masks; the tables were distanced, and there were additional tables at the back of the room for anyone concerned about being in close contact with others.

While some wore masks the whole time and took recommended precautions, others had no interest in compliance. For them, it was a matter of liberty versus safety.

“Sure there’s possibility of getting COVID, but there’s also a possibility at Walmart or the fast food places that serve hundreds of people per day,” Hogue said.

While Hogue acknowledged the virus is real and said some family members had had it already, she said that wouldn’t stop her from celebrating the holiday.

“We have something called freedom,” she said. “Our liberties and freedoms aren’t going to be stolen by a governor who I think enjoys the power. I think he enjoys the stage he’s had during the pandemic and he doesn’t want to get off the stage, and he’s really hurting the economy.”

Haywood County Medical Director Dr. Mark Jaben said that despite what seemed to be good planning and providing opportunities to do the safe thing, it’s up to each individual to make the conscious decision to do the right things. Prior to the event, Jaben said he thought it was likely someone would be infected

“In this case, they were offered an environment where they had the chance to be safe and they weren’t,” he said. “Whether that represents a disregard for the facts or a calculated decision that they’re willing to take on that risk for themselves and others for whatever reason — the bottom line is if they were planning to gather safely.”

A Christmas protest

The sign outside the indoor event center read “Poor man’s supper, Christmas protest.”

That’s exactly what the event turned out to be.

While there was a scripture reading by Pastor Melanie Garuffi of Bryson City, and Christmas caroling, there also was a call for civil disobedience.

Haywood County’s Bill Wilkie said that people need to respect each other as they respect the flag, but added that there a comes a time for a person to stand up for his or her beliefs.

Mark Day, who heads up the Swain County Armed Patriots, wore a mask reading “This mask is as useless as my governor.” He led the crowd in singing the national anthem. Day also commented on the 2020 election, saying it was the worst in history and alleged it’d been “stolen,” even though there has been no evidence produced to corroborate claims of widespread voter fraud.

“This country needs each and every one of you to get riled up,” Day told the crowd.

Prior to the event, Miller dubbed it as a Christmas celebration, but also had plenty to say about Cooper’s executive orders.

“The people of Western North Carolina have had enough of Cooper’s mandatory lockdowns,” she said in the press release. “There is a line between protecting public health and tyranny, and that line has been crossed. People are being scared to death; they’re depressed and suicidal, and abuse numbers have really spiked. Jobs, businesses and livelihoods have been lost. We should have the freedom to celebrate Christmas as we choose, with whomever we choose. We can celebrate safely.”

Miller said she’s aware that COVID is out there, but she isn’t as concerned as some. She said that she currently takes care of her 91-year-old mother and takes precautions when around her but that she isn’t changing the way she lives her life.

“I’m not trying to get her sick. I have family members who’ve had COVID; none have passed, thankfully,” she said. “But I’m hearing those who do die don’t die from COVID; they die from pneumonia or something else.”

Following the event, when asked whether it was more about Christmas or protesting Cooper, Hogue sounded pleased with how much of both it was.

“This was a Christmas celebration,” she said. “Some volunteers put it up as a peaceful protest. If they wanted to come out and protest the governor that’s fine, but to me it was a Christmas party.”

“Our religious freedoms are protected by a political system, so, of course, it’s going to overlap,” she quickly added. “As Christians, we have the duty to draw the line in the sand and say this is enough. Is it public health or tyranny? These are people that understand that some of the liberal media and people that may not have the best interest of America at heart — they push all these rules and regulations and take away freedoms.”

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