6 Westboro Baptist protesters cost taxpayers $5,579

The controversial group attracted about 800 counterprotesters and extra police were needed.

The Roanoke Times/April 29, 2010

It cost Blacksburg taxpayers $5,579 to secure the First Amendment rights of Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which on April 9 sent six protesters to demonstrate in Blacksburg.

The funds paid for supplies and 50 plainclothes and uniformed officers from Blacksburg, Virginia Tech, Christiansburg and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, Blacksburg police Chief Kim Crannis wrote in an e-mail.

The officers directed traffic, enforced buffer zones between protesters and provided crowd control. Police made no arrests related to the events.

About 800 counterprotesters gathered at the three locations, many of them wearing costumes and holding nonsensical signs, such as "Pickle Your Kumquat."

Known for their "God hates fags," "God hates Jews" and "God hates America" signs, the followers of the Rev. Fred Phelps -- three of them younger than 12 -- picketed at the Blacksburg Jewish Community Center and the National Bank downtown and Blacksburg Middle School on Prices Fork Road.

The group of mostly Phelps' family members objects to America's growing acceptance of gays, the Obama administration and Jews who refuse to repent for the death of Jesus Christ. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks "hate group" activity in the U.S., has classified Westboro Baptist Church as such a group.

Church members mount daily protests across the country, often targeting the funerals of military dead, AIDS victims and, more recently, the site of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in Montcoal, W.Va. The group believes such tragedies are proof of God's disdain for America.

In an interview April 9, Shirley Phelps-Roper, eldest daughter of Fred Phelps and leader of the Blacksburg protests, praised town officials and police for their professionalism.

"It's not like West Virginia, where the police incited the mob against us," she said.

After the April 16, 2007, shootings at Tech, Fred Phelps threatened to protest at the funerals of some of the 32 students and faculty slain that day. Then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell, now governor, issued a warning that anyone willfully disrupting funerals in Virginia could face charges under a law passed in 2006. Those protests never materialized.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case in October that will decide whether the group's anti-gay protests at funerals of American soldiers are protected by the First Amendment.

In 1991, about 30 members of the Ku Klux Klan staged a rally and march in Blacksburg that drew about 500 counterprotesters. Some 250 police officers from several jurisdictions provided security. That event cost taxpayers about $23,000, according to The Roanoke Times archives.

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