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PrEP
April 2005 (To print, click the print icon on your browser
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Communities Fighting Back Against Kansas Hate Group

The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS is well-known for its protests against organizations and groups supporting gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) issues. Thoughtful people in communities across the country, however, are no longer standing idly by and letting the group's extremist messages go unchallenged.

Founded by Rev. Fred Phelps in 1955, the Westboro Baptist Church 's congregation is largely made up of Phelps' family which includes 13 children, 53 grandchildren, and assorted in-laws. On its website, www.godhatesfags.com , the group claims to be dedicated to "preaching the Gospel truth about the soul-damning, nation-destroying notion that 'It is OK to be gay.'"1 The group travels around the country and world protesting outside of various events such as "The Laramie Project," the play about the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. The group even went as far as to protest outside of Matthew Shepard's funeral in 1998. According to its website, the group has held over 22,000 demonstrations since June 1991.2 The group also sends grotesque mass faxes to supporters of LGBT issues and files lawsuits against supporters using their own law firm staffed by church members. The Westboro Baptist Church is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization based in Montgomery , AL , that monitors extremist groups nationwide.3

While the group's outrageous activities often garner a great deal of press coverage, their presence is not welcome in most communities. On March 11, for example, at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs , Colorado over 500 people (some estimated as many as 800-1000 people), including community members, students, and school officials resisted typical Westboro harassment. Ten representatives of Phelp's group picketed in front of the school with signs such as "God hates fags" to protest the formation of a gay-straight alliance (GSA). (Last year the school denied students permission to form a GSA. The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of one of the students in the club, and the lawsuit is still pending.) Community members, students, and school officials proclaimed their opposition to the group and held signs with slogans such as "Teach Love." The counter-protest was organized by several local groups, including the Citizens Project, a Colorado Springs group that advocates for the separation of church and state.

Vice Mayor Richard Skorman responded to the Westboro Baptist Church protest by saying, "I want to say loud and clear that these people are not welcome in our city, and I have the support of all of council to say that. And I wish they would go home and leave us alone. People in Colorado Springs do not support what they do, and they need to leave us alone and mind their own business, because we're a city of everybody."4

Angered by the Vice Mayor's comment, members of the Westboro Baptist Church returned to hold a second protest in the town. To counter this second demonstration, the Citizens Project worked with the Pikes Peak InterReligious Clergy Alliance, to organize a panel of diverse religious leaders who spoke on the subject of tolerance and faith. While the Westboro Baptist Church held up signs outside City Hall proclaiming "Thank God for September 11 th " and "God hates you," the panel organizers found a silver-lining by discussing tolerance and love.

Ellie Collinson, Citizens Project Executive Director, explained, "while the Westboro Baptist Church 's message is hateful, I am heartened by the dialogue his presence has encouraged in our community on an issue that often divides our city. This open invitation for dialogue amongst religious leaders is testimony to the positive effect of negative events and represents a move towards greater understanding for the diverse perspectives in our community."5

Interestingly, this was not the first time that followers of Westboro Baptist Church came to Colorado Springs . On previous occasions, the mutual-opportunity hatred of Phelp's gang was unleashed against the right-wing group Focus on the Family, at its Colorado Springs headquarters. The group opposed Focus on the Families' ministry aimed at turning gay people back to a heterosexual lifestyle.

Even in Westboro's home town of Topeka , Kansas , concerned citizens are actively challenging Phelp's group. Several local organizations formed to fight the Westboro Baptist Church , including "Concerned Citizens for Topeka ." The group is bringing together a diverse coalition of Topeka residents, including local politicians and clergy, to fight the messages of hate emanating from Westboro's members.

In addition, members of the Topeka community showed their opposition to the church's platform when they voted overwhelmingly against Jael Phelps, a granddaughter of Rev. Phelps, in the nonpartisan primary for city council in March. Phelps ran against councilwoman Tiffany Muller, the first openly gay officeholder in Kansas . Muller was ultimately defeated in the election by an attorney named Richard Harmon. The Topeka community also voted against a Phelps' family campaign to repeal an ordinance that the prohibits the city from discriminating against gays in hiring. If it had passed, the repeal measure would have banned the Council from passing any ordinances specifically protecting gay and lesbian individuals for 10 years.

Fred Phelps' campaign of hatred may be having the reverse effect. In fact, many people in the Topeka community spoke of their support for gay rights and explicitly reference their position as opposed to Westboro's. Debra Goodrich, an opponent of the repeal measure said, "it's almost as if the gay rights people had hired Fred. He's so galvanized the community for gay rights. People are so outraged you could be so mean to people."6 Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center agreed, "I thank Fred Phelps for teaching Topeka about tolerance.He has done more for teaching tolerance than anyone in the history of Kansas."7

References

1 God Hates Fags Purpose, Westboro Baptist Church , accessed 28 April 2005,
< http://www.godhatesfags.com/main/purpose.html >.

2 God Hates Fags, About Westboro Baptist Church, accessed 28 April 2005,
< http://www.godhatesfags.com/main/aboutwbc.html >.

3 Southern Poverty Law Center , Active Hate Groups in 2004 Map, < http://www.splcenter.org/intel/map/hate.jsp?S=KS&m=3 >, accessed 28 April 2005.

4 "Palmer High School Protest," Western Skies ( Colorado Springs , CO ), 12 March 2005, accessed 12 April 2005, < http://westernskies.krcc.org/transcripts/3-12-2005/WS_3122005_A.html >.

5 Citizens Project, "Citizens Project joins with area religious leaders to counter intolerance in our

Community," Press Release published on 23 March 2005, accessed on 12 April 2005, < http://citizensproject.org/media/Interfaith%20Dialogue.pdf >.

6 Jodi Wilgoren, "Vote in Topeka Today Hangs on Gay Rights and a Vitriolic Local Protester," The New York Times , 1 March 2005, accessed on 12 April 2005, < http://www.theocracywatch.org/homo_topeka_times_mar1_05.htm >.

7 Roy Bragg, " Topeka has little love for hateful preacher," San Antonio Express-News (TX), 10 April 2005, accessed on 12 April 2005, < http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/metro/
stories/MYSA041005.1A.antigay_church.1c11ad8ec.html >

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