Church blames gays for storm

Montgomery Advertiser/October 9, 2004
By Crystal Bonvillian

"Thank God for Ivan."

That is the slogan Montgomery residents might see on signs later this month when members of a Kansas church come to town for an anti-gay protest.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, lawyer for and member of Westboro Baptist Church, said the congregation believes the hurricane was God's punishment for homosexuality.

"Who do you think sent that storm?" Roper asked. "The Lord sent it as righteous judgement."

The group is best known for picketing outside the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student beaten and tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo., because he was gay. Shepard, who was not found until the following day, died of his wounds six days later.

Members of the church will be at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery the morning of Oct. 16, as well as at two churches and a gay-inclusive community center in Mobile the same day. Protests also are scheduled at several churches in Bay Minette on Oct. 17.

The impending visit from the church, classified by the law center as a hate group, has spurred into action members of Equality Alabama, who, along with groups such as the Montgomery Peace Project, are planning a protest of their own.

"There is definitely going to be a counter-protest," said Ken Baker, board member for Equality Alabama. "We're holding a community discussion Sunday afternoon to determine what we will do."

Baker laughed when told of Roper's claims about Hurricane Ivan.

"My response is this: Hurricane Ivan harmed many more heterosexual people than homosexual people," Baker said. "That thought is ridiculous."

The community meeting, scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday at Baker's 1311 Woodward Ave. home, is open to the public.

"Some people think (the church group) should just be ignored," Baker said. "Some people think we should have something more positive, like a church service the night before they get here."

Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright said the city would do whatever is necessary to make sure the protest is a peaceful one.

"I'm going to make sure they send us a copy of any signs they plan on using," Bright said. "They will not be vulgar, repulsive or offensive to the public."

The mayor said the police department has done a good job of handling the group in its past visits.

"They allowed them their right to demonstrate but, at the same time, protected the residents of Montgomery," Bright said.

Roper said the group is coming to Alabama in response to the recent deaths of two men in alleged hate crimes. Roderick George, 40, was shot to death on July 28 in Montgomery. His accused killer, Anthony Johnson, claims he shot George after George made a sexual advance toward him.

Scotty Joe Weaver of Bay Minette, 18, was beaten and stabbed to death on July 18 before being set on fire. Three acquaintances, including his roommate, have been charged in his murder.

Roper described Bay Minette as a town that "failed in its duty" to teach Weaver that homosexuality is wrong.

"We have to remind them that there is a God, there is a Hell and it's not OK to be gay. If you call yourself a Christian, you have no reason for carrying the big lie -- that God loves everyone."

Roper said Montgomery was chosen as a place for protest not only because of George's death, but also because of the law center's director, Morris Dees.

"He thinks the teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is subject to his approval," Roper said of Dees.

When contacted about the group's pending arrival, Dees shrugged off the visit.

"Their pitiful presence doesn't warrant comment," Dees said. "They are a small family of sickos who go around the country preying on the misery of others."

Dees said the law center has had numerous protesters over the years and that Westboro Baptist Church's appearance would not change its daily business routine.

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