As the ruins of the Knoxville Planned Parenthood smoldered in the background, vocal Pastor Ken Peters, a prominent anti-abortion figure, spoke to a reporter from the local ABC affiliate. “This is not gonna stop abortion,” he told them. “It’s the changing of hearts and minds, it’s the changing of laws. This might temporarily halt abortion, but this doesn’t stop it. We just pray that nobody was hurt and that who whoever did this is caught and prosecuted, and we pray that abortion would stop right here in the state of Tennessee.”
This past New Year’s Eve, less than one year after a gunman shot out the glass doors of the Planned Parenthood in Knoxville, Tennessee, the entire clinic burned to the ground in the midst of a $2.2 million renovation and expansion project. (No one was injured.) Investigators from the Knoxville Fire Department have ruled it an intentional fire — an arson, started by a person or persons who, just like the gunman, have yet to be identified. As investigators continue putting together the pieces, abortion rights activists can’t help but wonder: Did the rhetoric of Pastor Peters’s extreme anti-abortion church literally help stoke the flames?
Pastor Ken Peters started The Church at Planned Parenthood (TCAPP) in Spokane, Washington in 2018 as a program put on by his Patriot Church to stir up anti-abortion and Christian nationalist senitment in the area. “It’s a worship service at the gates of Hell,” the group states on its website, but in reality it’s a monthly anti-abortion protest. At these services across from the local clinic, Peters and special guests preach the evils of abortion, call up people for testimonials, and sing religious songs.
Peters tells Rolling Stone TCAPP had no involvement in the fire, nor does he believe that his organization should be implicated, either. “We have never, ever endorsed or been proponents of anything illegal,” he says. “We’re just exercising our first amendment right to peaceful assembly, and praying and singing. Any accusation praying and singing could end up in arson, and speaking for the lives of the unborn could end up in criminal activity is just preposterous.”
But Ashley Coffield, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, tells Rolling Stone she noticed a change after TCAPP came to town. “We’ve always had strong protest activity at our Knoxville Health Center, but no violence until January 2021,” she says. “Ken Peters relocation to Knoxville increased the protest activity we already had.”
At the first Knoxville TCAPP service on Dec. 29, 2020, Peters called the event “a seed that is being planted…[to] be a spark of a fire revival in the south.” He then led the small group gathered near a small tent across from the Knoxville Planned Parenthood in prayer, saying, “We pray that every fire of heaven would come against this building, and would come against this organization, and would come against this evil, in Jesus’s name.”
Less than one month later, a gunman would attack the Knoxville Planned Parenthood in the early hours of Jan. 22, 2021 — the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. Coffield tells Rolling Stone it was the first instance of violence in the clinic’s 20 year history, with the recent fire being the second.
“I was completely shocked. It really took me several days to process that it happened,” Coffield says of the fire. “We had a lot invested in that project. I knew immediately that we were determined to rebuild and reopen.”
Coffield says she was aware Peters had moved from Spokane to Knoxville, and was aware of his church because it’s name included Planned Parenthood, but she has no clue as to why he chose Knoxville for his church’s expansion. The services happen about once a month and start at 7 p.m. — one hour after the clinic’s closing — with the most recent one taking place 10 days before the fire, Coffield says.
The fire continues to be investigated by the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD) in partnership with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Though KFP Assistant Fire Chief Mark Wilbanks has said that the ATF was brought in because of the “political nature” of the crime, he explains to Rolling Stone that it’s not unusual for greater investigative resources to be needed. “This is being investigated like any other fire we investigate, but we understand that there’s a national spotlight just because it’s Planned Parenthood.”
Wilbanks confirms to Rolling Stone that despite not having a suspect yet, they believe the fire was intentionally started by either one person or multiple people. “We are still processing information gained from the scene.” He also says the department is aware of Peters and his church, but says there is nothing to link them. “To my knowledge, a connection between them and the Planned Parenthood fire has not been made. But I don’t know exactly where investigators are, and who they’re looking at. It’s not something they’ve conveyed to me at this time.”
While investigators continue to dig through evidence, Coffield says Planned Parenthood Knoxville is carrying on as many of its services as possible, like telemedicine for gender-affirming care, prescription refills, and referrals to other providers, and waiting for more answers. “I have no idea who could’ve done something so violent and dangerous, and put neighbors and firefighters in harm’s way,” she says.