Followers of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church have threatened to picket a sixth form college in Basingstoke, Hampshire during a staging of The Laramie Project, a play about an American youth murdered because of his sexuality.
The church from Topeka, Kansas is mainly composed of relatives of the founder, pastor Fred Phelps, who style themselves “the most hated family in America”.
Their core belief – that God will punish the West for its acceptance of homosexuality – has seen them protest at dozens of servicemen’s funerals brandishing garish placards stating “God hates the USA” and “Thank God for dead soldiers”.
Details of the church’s first picket in Britain was posted on their website with the slogan “God Hates England; Your Queen Is A W—-“.
“Some of the best Bible preaching in the history of the world came out of that dark dismal land, but now it is full of all abominations,” the notice read.
“God will shortly destroy the UK and the world, but not until they have got the plain, clear message so that they will be without excuse.”
The target of Friday evening’s demonstration will be the Central Studio arts venue at Queen Mary’s College, where local gay group Freedom Youth is staging a small production of the The Laramie Project this week.
The play, which has roused the ire of Westboro followers in the past, tells the story of Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager tortured and murdered in small town America in 1998.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a church spokeswoman, confirmed the plan but declined to say whether members would be flying over from the US or if the picket would be carried out by followers in Britain. The church has no scheduled pickets on the days immediately before or after the Basingstoke demonstration.
“It is the first actual picket. We have been preaching by so many means to the UK for years. The arm of the Lord our God is not shortened by oceans and things, all of which he created, and all of which he knew about when he considered these last hours of the very last days of all,” Mrs Phelps-Roper said.
Maria Miller, Conservative MP for Basingstoke, said that she had contacted the Home Secretary to see what action the Government may be considering in relation to possible attempts by the Phelps family to enter the country.
She condemned the church’s “highly inflammatory language and behaviour” and said the young people who had worked on the play would not be intimidated by threats.
“The most important thing is that a production that is trying to promote tolerance goes ahead and that’s what I’m focusing on achieving,” she said.
“There’s no evidence that they will be coming along and I don’t believe they have a base in the UK.”
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, the gay right group, described the church’s plan as “distressing”.
“The Laramie Project is a very serious play about a young man who was beaten to death just because he was gay. To regard that as a cause for celebration will make a lot of people both gay and straight feel very uncomfortable,” he said.
But he warned that any attempt to ban Westboro church members from travelling to Britain would just give them the oxygen of publicity similar to the attention garnered by the right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilders last week.
Members of Anonymous, the nebulous online community that has previously organised protests against the Church of Scientology, are alreading planning counter-demonstrations outside the college on Friday, posts on internet message boards indicate.