Baptist family pickets churches

Max Rust

Protest signs with statements ranging from “AIDS cures fags” to “Homophobia not welcome here” waved above demonstrations Sunday morning in front of several Minneapolis churches.
Fifteen members of the conservative Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas picketed four parishes in Minneapolis on Sunday, protesting the local churches’ admittance of gays and lesbians into their congregations.
The Westboro church is headed by the Phelps family, a conservative Baptist clan that travels coast to coast preaching staunch anti-gay and anti-lesbian messages.
The Westboro picketers were met by a crowd of about 350 people, including gay rights groups, politicians, anti-hate activists and media representatives. Although many people present counter-protested the Westboro group, no one was injured and only one minor theft was reported.
“God hates fags,” said Joshua Phelps-Roper, the Rev. Fred Phelps’ 13-year-old grandson who has picketed with his family for eight years.
“I’m not here to win souls for Jesus or anything,” Phelps-Roper said. “I’m here to preach to these people so they can’t go to heaven. When God says, Why didn’t you believe in my truth?’ they can’t say, Well I didn’t know what it was.'”
Arthur Klassen, a University neurology professor who attends Hennepin Methodist Church, one of the Westboro group’s targets, called the Phelps family’s picketing “pathetic.”
“People who grow up saying God hates anybody and that AIDS is a good thing — I can’t understand that,” Klassen said. “It’s out of my context of what religion is all about.”
The Phelps Crusade
The Phelps family resides in Topeka, Kan., where the Westboro Baptist Church is located. The church’s minister, Fred Phelps, began his travelling crusade eight years ago to change homosexuality laws in the United States after lawsuits and lobbying efforts failed.
The Phelps family began picketing Minnesota on Friday in St. Paul, and then traveled up to Duluth on Saturday; both protests were largely ignored, according to local media reports.
Though Phelps didn’t attend the Minnesota protests — his son said the minister was picketing in Alabama. In a phone interview Thursday, Fred Phelps said he would like to see capital punishment administered to anyone in the United States who admits they are gay or who is caught “committing homosexual acts.”
Phelps’ beliefs are partly influenced by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, an ardent opponent of gay rights. In his address to the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1996, Mugabe was quoted denouncing gays as “sexual perverts” who are “lower than dogs and pigs.”
Phelps has met with Mugabe on occasion to discuss legal issues relating to homosexuality. In Zimbabwe the common law concerning sodomy and unnatural offenses criminalizes homosexuals to seven years in prison. However, recent attempts have been made to increase the penalty for all sexual crimes, including homosexuality, rape, incest and bestiality, to a public flogging and castration for males.
Refusing and Resisting
Throughout the morning Sunday, counter-protestors outnumbered the Westboro group, sometimes by a margin of about 25 to one. Anti-hate advocates outvoiced the Kansas picketers, chanting, “Stop the hate!” and “Gays and lesbians under attack — What do we do? Stand up, fight back!”
“When someone like this comes, they create some political space that gives permission to people to commit hate crimes against gays and lesbians,” said Michelle Gross, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis chapter of Refuse and Resist! “We don’t want to see an increase in gay bashing in this community that results from this.”
Refuse and Resist! is a New York-based anti-hate organization with chapters in various cities across the United States. Most recently, the local chapter took part in an April counter-protest of a neo-Nazi rally.
Other counter-protesters attacked the Phelps family’s fashion sense with signs reading: “God Hates Your Haircut” and “God Hates Your Polyester Slacks. Re-pant or Perish.”
One counter-protester, third-year University medical student Erin Krebs, held such a sign.
“I think almost any person who saw (the Westboro protesters) would think that they were insane,” Krebs said. “They’re just homophobic and queer-bashing; it’s not about religion at all.”
She explained that her haircut sign illustrated how easy it is to use selections of the Bible to promote various ideologies. The Phelps family’s movement is based on three Bible passages that anti-gay advocates say clearly illustrate God’s contempt for homosexuality.
“The Bible also says you should put to death disobedient children,” said the Rev. David B. Wheeler, of Hennepin Methodist Church. “People pick and choose and use what they want to support their own narrow prejudices.”
At one point outside the Metropolitan Community Church in South Minneapolis, a group of counter-protesters attempting to get near the Westboro group was physically forced back by a team of police.
“You’re not letting me cross the street in my own neighborhood!” yelled one woman at the officers.
“I live down the block, and this is not cool that this is in our neighborhood,” said Joe FM, a south-side resident who was pushed back by police. “It’s kind of sick that all the cops sit there and protect (the Phelps family).
“If people from the neighborhood, or people who are rooted in this community don’t want them here, they shouldn’t have to be here. Whatever people decide to do to make them leave is what people should do.”