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York prepares for protesters

Official: Positivity is the best defense against Westboro Baptist Church's anti-gay message.

Daily Record/Sunday News


Feb 6, 2007 — The worst way to respond to hate groups is with silence, said Ann Van Dyke of the state Human Relations Commission.

"Silence is the welcome mat for hate," she said. "It says, 'This is OK with us.'"

Van Dyke was a speaker at Monday's public meeting, "When Hate Groups Come to Town," at the York County Council of Churches. The meeting was sponsored by the York County Council of Churches, the York County Community Against Racism and the York City Human Relations Commission.

The meeting was held in response to Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church's plan to protest York Suburban High School's production Saturday of "The Laramie Project," which deals with the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard near Laramie, Wyo. Westboro church member Shirley Phelps-Roper said the play promotes homosexuality and an acceptance of the "sinful" lifestyle.

Westboro members then plan to protest at six local churches Sunday morning. Phelps-Roper, daughter of Westboro pastor Fred Phelps, has said the group picked the largest churches in York County because "they are teaching rebellion against God."

Van Dyke said Westboro has picketed at more than 25 locations in Pennsylvania. While ignoring them is not the answer, she said, members of the public should not interact with Westboro church members. Instead, she encouraged displaying positive messages.

1D Van Dyke said other churches faced with Westboro's picketing have made large signs stating "God is Love," sang "Jesus Loves Me" or had people stand between and picketers and the congregation, acting as a physical and emotional buffer.

"We're not asking you to take a stand for homosexuality," she said. "We're asking you to take a stand that everybody must be safe and respected as an individual human being."

Kate Bortner, crime prevention specialist for York City Police, said the officials of churches being targeted by Westboro should call their local police to ask the best way to be prepared.

"Be proactive," she said.

Alanna Berger was one of more than 20 people in attendance at the meeting. Berger is a member of the Silent Witnesses of Central Pennsylvania and has been at locations Westboro has picketed. She said members of Silent Witnesses stand between the picketers and the public, blocking the picketers' signs with large umbrellas, which she said they plan to do Saturday at York Surburban. Berger said they also encourage the public not to interact with picketers.

"You can't argue with someone that is impervious to logic," she said of Westboro church members. "But they are entitled to yell and scream their obscenities."

Mary Galiardi, whose son will perform in "The Laramie Project," attended the meeting and said she liked the fact they were being told to respond. She said there is a plan to have a discussion about the controversy after Saturday's performance.

She said the parents of students performing in the play are encouraging the public to pack the house at Thursday and Saturday's performances.

"Show that the community supports the school and students, not the picketers," she said.