One of the saddest news stories of the year occurred the week before Christmas when members of a group that calls itself a church protested in front of Port Charlotte High School.
PCHS students recently formed a Gay-Straight Alliance, and that was enough to make the members of the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kan., to climb out of their basement where they hold services, get in their van, travel thousands of miles and spew their hateful message on a cold, rainy Florida day.
The signs said things like “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
The fringe (using that term is being kind) religious group splits its time protesting gay groups and the funerals of dead U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The church’s leader, Fred Phelps Sr., preaches that homosexuality is the cause of all of our nation’s ills and dead soldiers are God’s way of punishing our nation.
The church members live and worship inside a gated compound and travel around the country garnering publicity for their hate-filled beliefs. The group came into the national spotlight in 1998, when they picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young man from Wyoming who was beaten to death just because he was gay. Shepard’s death was the inspiration for the play, “The Laramie Project,” which regularly receives protests from Westboro members when it appears in local theaters.
The church, which many religious observers consider a cult, is about as hateful as you can get. According to Phelps, God hates:
The victims of Sept. 11
The astronauts who died on the space shuttle Columbia
Santa Claus (because he is gay)
Mr. Rogers (Westboro picketed a memorial for the late Fred Rogers, who was a Presbyterian minister, because he didn’t speak out enough against homosexuality.)
Hurricane Katrina victims
The Rev. Billy Graham
When the circus of hate rolled into Port Charlotte, PCHS officials were ready. Students were kept in class to avoid any violent confrontations with our youngsters.
But other community members showed up to counterprotest the insane behavior of the Westboro Whackos. A large group of local military veterans shouted back at them as they kicked and dragged the American flag through the mud.
I was proud of those who took the time on that rainy Monday to look hate in the eye. The veterans, students, mothers, sons and daughters who showed up that day let those who work so hard to foster hate know that most people don’t believe that God hates anyone.
The God most people choose to worship loves even misguided people who live in a paranoid, hate-filled compound.