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Westboro to meet quiet counterpoint

Opponents said their protests will not try to confront Phelps' group.

By TED CZECH
Daily Record/Sunday News

 

Feb 10, 2007 — Alanna Berger said she and her group, Silent Witness, plan to show those attending "The Laramie Project" play tonight at York Suburban High School how easy it is to ignore protesters.

The group of about 15 or 20 plans to stand between protesters led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., and the school. They will carry rainbow-patterned umbrellas and wear bright-colored emergency vests, Berger said.

"Our mission is to provide a human, spiritual firewall between protesters and our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community," she wrote in an e-mail Thursday.

Westboro Baptist member Shirley Phelps-Roper, who is also Phelps' daughter, has said the play - based on the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard near Laramie, Wyo., and the community's response - promotes homosexuality and an acceptance of a "sinful" lifestyle.

Berger said she has a history with Phelps' group.

About three years ago, the church protested the showing of "Jim In Bold," a documentary on Jim Wheeler, a gay high school student in Lebanon who committed suicide in 1997 because of constant harassment at school. The same year, Phelps demonstrated outside Berger's church, the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, she said.

"For people who have never seen protesters, it can be quite a shock," Berger said. "We try to make sure people ignore the protesters ... A lot of people think they can reason with them."

But the protesters are steadfast in their beliefs and might even try to incite those who debate them, Berger said. That's when people tend to lose their tempers and get arrested, she said.

Greg Toupes, 23, who lived in York County for about a decade before recently moving to Bel Air, Md., said Friday he planned to gather a group of friends whose goal is similar to that of Silent Witness.

"We're not talking to them or looking at them," he said of the 3A Westboro group. "That's what they want, they want a reaction out of us - we're not going to do that."

Toupes said Saturday's demonstration will be his first. He was motivated to organize a group of counterprotesters once he heard Phelps would be there.

"It's upsetting, seeing Americans spread hate in God's name," he said.

For Berger, it will be a "good day" if Phelps and his group don't show up. But she doubts that. She said she learned he has obtained a permit to protest outside the school from 6:45 to 7:30 p.m.

"They are punctual, (but) their message is disturbing," she said.

THE PLAY

York Suburban High School will present "The Laramie Project" 7:30 p.m. today. Tickets will be sold at the door, $5 for adults and $3 for students. Children younger than 12 will not be admitted without an adult.

THE PHELPS CONNECTION

The Rev. Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., gained national attention in 1998 when his congregants set off an angry reaction by showing up at the funeral of gay murder victim Matthew Shepard and held up anti-gay signs. Phelps is portrayed in the play "The Laramie Project."

Shepard, 21, was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead outside Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998. He was found 18 hours later and rushed to a hospital, where he lingered for five days before dying. died nearly five days later. The attack was characterized as a hate crime and the story of Shepard's death became national news. Two men were convicted of murder and sentenced to life terms.

Sources: The Anti-DefamationLeague and news reports