Sides square off

Nearly 1,000 people packed school to see 'The Laramie Project'

Daily Record/Sunday News




Feb 11, 2007 — Forty-five minutes before the start of "The Laramie Project" at York Suburban High School, a small group of protesters from Kansas and a throng of local play supporters squared off on the school's front lawn.

"Judy Shepard raised her son for the devil," shouted Steve Drain, a member of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kan.

The crowd of about 150 play supporters retorted with chants like, "One, two, three, four, open up our closet door. Five, six, seven, eight, don't assume your kids are straight."

The school's drama club was putting on the play - about the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard - as part of a focus on diversity.

Thirteen of Phelps' church members were there to protest the play, saying that it represented sinful behavior. The group arrived at 6:45 p.m., and the members were restricted to the sidewalk at the intersection of Southern Road and Hollywood Drive.

"The last conversation I had today with a representative from Westboro Baptist is that they intend ... to communicate their message and leave," said Spring Garden Township Police Chief George Swartz just before the group arrived. "They want to hold a lawful and peaceful demonstration."

About 20 members of Silent Witnesses of Central Pa. arrived to "provide a spiritual firewall between protestors and the participants at the events," said Blaise Liffick, Silent Witnesses' associate director.

"We feel responsible to help the gay and lesbian community in Pennsylvania feel safe and unthreatened," Liffick said, adding that the best thing for play supporters to do is not engage the Westboro Baptist members.

If that message was communicated to the play supporters, they did not follow it. Although they hurled insults and satirical comments at the church members, the mood among them was mostly light.

Keight Clagg, 25, of York, said she and about 20 friends decided to support the play and protest Phelps' group.

"A lot of my friends are homosexual," she said. "I think it's terrible that they can't be open about it."

Many of Clagg's friends wore strips of duct tape across their mouths, a sign that Clagg said was "to kind of stand up for the people who have been killed by hate, who don't have a voice anymore."

The church members - some of them - held signs and shouted at the play's supporters.

Sam Phelps-Roper, 28, a grandson of the church's pastor, held two signs, one of which read "America Is Doomed."

Fred Phelps, whose church protested outside Shepard's funeral, is portrayed in "The Laramie Project." Asked about his grandfather's portrayal in the play, Phelps-Roper said, "It is beautiful, because no matter how they want to tell that part of the story, our message is there."

Drain, 41, said that as a believer in God, it was his duty to warn others of their sinful acts, otherwise, "I'll be partly to blame" if they go to Hell when they die.

The play's supporters gave out two huge whoops, once when someone said, "Thanks for your support," although it was unclear who he was addressing, and the second time when someone said, "Everybody - 15 minutes until the play starts."

Just before 7:30 p.m., Spring Garden Police - assisted by York County Sheriff's deputies and Silent Witnesses - moved the crowd back toward the school and then escorted the church members west on Southern Road toward Hill Street.

The play's supporters gave the church group a send-off, chanting "Na, na, na, hey, hey, hey - good-bye."

Those with tickets filed into the school's auditorium, while others were disappointed by seeing a sign taped to the front doors that read, "Show Is Sold Out."

Reach Ted Czech at 771-2033 or