KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A pastor with a church located in Lenoir City often hosts sermons against drag performances, abortions and many other political issues. The Patriot Church has two other locations across the U.S. listed on its website, with Ken Peters at its helm.
As a bill effectively banning drag performances made its way through the Tennessee legislature, and was eventually signed into law, he urged followers to call and message businesses hosting them and drew attention to the church's beliefs and actions in the East Tennessee community.
Some History of The Patriot Church
Knoxville has 687 churches, and most are different denominations following their own missions. None are quite like The Patriot Church.
"Most churches try to stay tiptoe around these culture war issues, like abortion, and gender, and that sort of thing. Patriot Church, we just say it. You can call us bigots and racists, but we're not. We know we're not. We're the nicest people on the planet," said Ken Peters, the pastor of the church.
He said the church started around two and a half years ago and said he also runs The Church at Planned Parenthood in Spokane.
That church was sued by Planned Parenthood in 2020 for interfering with patient care. TCAPP ended up losing after a judge found that they violated an injunction, resulting in around $960,000 in to Planned Parenthood's remaining claims, attorney fees and damages.
He has not filed an appeal.
"It's one of the greatest honors of my life. I don't like paying the money. But, I have nothing but pride and honor in my heart for being sued," he said.
The same year, Peters started the Patriot Church in Lenoir City. He calls it the "Knoxville campus."
"I got on Google, and I was tired of living in a blue state like I've lived my whole life. So, I wanted to find the most conservative state that I could find. And Tennessee was in the top five," he said.
In Oct. 2022, The Patriot Church started trying to shut down drag shows in Knoxville, drawing attention in the city.
"We are trying to shut down the drag shows," he said during a sermon in October. "Between this church and The Well Church, we have contributed to shutting down four drag shows across East Tennessee."
By March that count went up to seven, according to research by WBIR reporters.
"I would say probably about five to ten that we've really tried to shut down or prohibit children from being able to come," he said.
The most notable effort from the church was in December when Peters encouraged followers to show at a Knox County Commission meeting to oppose an upcoming drag performance in The Tennessee Theatre, "A Drag Queen Christmas." They wanted the county to shut it down.
At the meeting, Peters was met with pushback. Crowds chanted against him, yelling "Ken Fascist Peters," several times. Security officers later asked the crowd to leave, and Knox County Commission did not shut down the show.
Peters then started planning a protest against the show.
"We're not gonna, other people might, but Patriot Church will not be yelling. We will not be taking. We're just going to sing hymns," he said in a Dec. 20 live video at the Krutch Park protest.
Hundreds of people showed up in addition to The Patriot Church.
"First of all, everything legal. Nothing violent. And, you know, just within the rights that our great constitution in this country gave us," he said.
During the protest, he yelled "we're having church at the gates of hell. It's a very dark place."
A group of people also attended the protests dressed in symbols of The Proud Boys. At least one person also appeared in Antifa clothing.
"We're just there singing and praying. I got the Proud Boys, so I'm thankful for the Proud Boys. But, we have nothing to do with that organization. That's the smear tactics of the left," Peters said.
Lawyer Deciphers Difference Between Free Speech and Hate Speech
"There are thin, often imperceptible lines, between hate speech and free speech," said Larry Crain, a free speech attorney who founded the Church Law Institute.
The First Amendment protects almost every type of speech, and lawyers say pastors preaching at the pulpit have the broadest form of that freedom. They said that can include speeches about drag performances.
"They were saying we were pedophiles. They were saying we were grooming the children," said Demitrya Kryst, a drag performer in East Tennessee. "I was told that what you're doing is wrong, that the way you're living is gross."
Crain also said that the law can also protect online speech.
"This is a person you've seen in a picture and video on Facebook ... and you want to refer to them as pedophiles, child molesters, and you've never even met these people in person," said Mike Billups, an event organizer in East Tennessee. "It's slanderous and it's hateful."
Peters said that he feels like he faces another kind of hurtful speech.
"I'm going against the tide, I'm going against the grain. I get massive hate mail. My email is full with people saying the worst, most god-awful things," he said.
Crain handles cases pertaining to the rights of churches. He works in Nashville.
"I would argue that a pastor standing at the pulpit in his church has one of the broadest rights of free speech that one can have," he said. "I mean, that is quintessentially religious free speech. That's protected by two prongs of the First Amendment."
He also said that the freedom of speech laws and freedom of religion laws protect most church sermons — even if they are political in nature.
"There's a host of things that churches can do to try and impact, politically, their community," he said.
However, he said that free speech laws stop protecting any speaker, pastor or person when a "true threat" is made.
"It has to do with speech that is intended to incite actions, in terms of hatred or animosity, or ill-will, or malice and so forth," said Crain.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation visited Maryville in November to meet with members of the LGBTQ community and explain hate speech and true threats in more depth.
"If it's just hate speech ... there's nothing we can do. That's First Amendment-protected," they said.
During that meeting, WBIR asked if the rhetoric coming from The Patriot Church, and its attendees, was specifically protected. Directly after asking about the church, the FBI shut down the informational meeting a half-hour early.
"My boss has spoken. It signals time, time has come upon us," they said during the meeting.
Peters insisted that he hasn't done anything illegal.
"You know, a lot of pastors fly below the radar. They stay out of trouble. They don't want to poke the bear. I'm one of those guys that says, 'You know what? To live is Christ. To die is gain,'" Peters said, referring to a Biblical verse.
Illegal or not, works have a lasting impact.
"We are in fear for our lives, and I cannot stress that enough. A lot of times when we are getting ready, it's just the fear of, 'Is someone going to come to my show? Am I going to be attacked,'" said Juuls Carrizales, a drag performer.
Pastors Debate the Fine Lines of Faith
Reverand Colleen Darraugh is an associate pastor at the United Church of Christ. She also identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community.
"Metropolitan Community churches was founded in 1968, with special outreach to the LGBTQ community. So when I went to seminary, I went as an out lesbian, which was very different," she said.
"We welcome, extravagantly, everyone — LGBTQ people included into the full lap of the church, including leadership. I'm openly lesbian, and I'm on staff," said Reverand Tonya Barnette, who also identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community.
Peters denied that members of the LGBTQ community could even be pastors, claiming that The Bible forbids it.
"There's no such thing as a lesbian pastor. It's illegal in the Bible. Like, The Bible has strict rules for pastors and if you're a lesbian, you don't qualify," he said.
Their churches share the same Christian foundation — a father, a son and a Holy Spirit. However, they don't agree on how The Bible should be interpreted.
"We believe that if God made you a boy, he meant for you to be a boy. If God made you a girl, he didn't go, 'Oops.' He made you to be a wonderful woman of God someday," he said.
He references passages like Leviticus 20:13 as he explains the church's Biblical perspective and said that The Patriot Church is a literal interpretation of The Bible. The New King James version of that verse is below.
If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.
"If a church doesn't follow the Bible, then they're just a club. They're not the church," he said.
Neither Barnette nor Darraugh said they thought The Bible was meant to always be taken literally.
"There are too many translations that have happened and too many edits. It's not one book, it's many books written over centuries," said Barnette.
Darraugh also pointed to some verses that contradict actions people may take against the LGBTQ community.
"Do not judge, less you also be judged. So, we have to understand it in context — you can't just pick a verse out," said Darraugh.
Specifically, she pointed to Matthew 7:1-3. The New King James version of that verse is below.
Judge not, that ye be not judged.
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Many of the things that Peters preaches against at The Patriot Church pulpit — Metropolitan Community Church encourages.
"I've been to several drag shows. We've had a drag show in our church and it was just fun kinds of stuff," said Darraugh.