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Protest meets protest in York
Anti-gay church group, picketing high school play about gay man, finds itself outnumbered.

By Patricia Poist, Staff Writer
Sunday News

Published: Feb 11, 2007 12:01 AM EST

YORK, Pa. -

They carried their trademark hand-painted signs bearing the words "God Hates America," "God is Your Enemy" and "Fags Doom Nations."

They repeatedly shouted that tolerance of homosexuality has unleashed God's wrath on this country and is to blame for U.S. soldiers dying in Iraq. It is, according to them, "why our kids are coming home in little pieces."

Obed Ayala, a senior at Lancaster Mennonite High school, counter-protests against the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas

Obed Ayala, a senior at Lancaster Mennonite High school, counter-protests against the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, protesting in front of the York Suburban High School in York Saturday. The school theater group was performing "The Laramie Project," a story about the slaying of Matthew Shepard.
( Vinny Tennis)

As promised, with inflammatory signs, songs and chants, 13 members of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., showed up at York Suburban High School Saturday night to picket the school drama team's performance of "The Laramie Project."

They met a counter-protest from a crowd with more than 10 times as many people who told them that neither they nor their message are welcome here.

"The Laramie Project," also an award winning HBO film, depicts the reactions from Laramie, Wyo., following the 1998 vicious murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student. His death was considered a hate crime and the film's intent was to foster understanding and discussion about how it could have happened and how it could have been avoided.

Westboro Baptist Church, led by"fire-and-brimstone" preacher Fred Phelps, believes the film is "is in support of the homosexual agenda" and that Shepard is in hell for his sin of being gay, according to the church's Web site and myriad picket signs.

"They are so vulgar," said 17-year-old Linda Wolfe, a junior at Lancaster Catholic High School, who said she "as a Catholic and as a Christian cannot understand their hate."

So Linda, along with more than 150 others from York and the surrounding area, who knew from the media, the Internet and word-of-mouth the Westboro folks were coming, braved bitter temperatures outside the school Saturday night with their own message

"Go back to Kansas," some shouted.

"You are double-minded and unstable," two men and woman shouted over and over to the group who were picketing on a corner sidewalk off school grounds.

Linda, accompanied by five other teens from Lancaster County, made a sign with a Bible verse, John 2:9, which said: "He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still."

Members of Westboro Baptist, which is listed as a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, had earlier announced on the church's Web site that they were coming to York to protest the school as well as York County churches today for being sympathetic toward homosexuality.

The church has picketed numerous funerals of U.S. soldiers to get out its anti-gay message. In October, the church planned to picket the funerals of five Amish girls who were fatally shot at West Nickel Mines School, but later dropped those plans.

Phelps wasn't picketing last night, but his daughter, Margie Phelps, was. She said her group came to York to help people here "connect the dots."

"When you raise the kids in the high schools that it is OK to be gay, then you send them on the battlefield without a moral compass; that is why they are coming home in body bags," Margie Phelps said in an interview after her picket, which started at 6:30 p.m. and ended at 7:22 p.m., just eight minutes before the play opened.

"It would have been kinder to take them out in the woods when they were 1 year old and let them freeze to death then to teach them the soul-damning lie that it is OK to be gay."

Today her group plans to picket several York County churches of all denominations for not adequately teaching that homosexuality is a sin, she said.

Saturday night, Spring Garden Township police were out in full force on school grounds, keeping the Westboro pickets and their counter-protesters several yards apart.

About a dozen people from the Silent Witnesses of Central PA of Harrisburg, which tries to serve as a buffer between groups like Westboro Baptist and counter-protesters, sang "Amazing Grace" and opened rainbow-colored umbrellas so that neither group could see one another.

Meanwhile, judging from the number of people streaming into the school, the audience was packed when the curtain went up for the second and last night of the performance.

York Suburban Superintendent William Hartman Jr. said in a Friday interview that he hopes the play serves as "a learning experience" for the students. And he said, the students could learn "possibly from the protest."

Contact Patricia Poist at