Pride and prejudice

Webb City school's T-shirt controversy attracts plan for protest

The Joplin Globe/November 4, 2004
By Jeff Wells

Webb City, Mo. -- Children will likely be among the members of the Westboro Baptist Church who stand outside Webb City High School later this month with signs that say "God Hates Fags, God Hates America," and "Thank God for Sept. 11."

The Topeka, Kan., sect, led by the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., has announced plans to protest at 7 a.m. Monday, Nov. 29, in front of the school after junior Brad Mathewson twice attempted to wear gay-pride T-shirts to class.

Phelps' controversial group claims to have conducted 20,000 anti-gay demonstrations across the nation in the past 14 years. The group picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming man who was beaten to death in 1998.

"We stand peacefully on public sidewalks with signs to remind students and the people that there is a God, there is a standard, there is a hell, there is a day of judgment," Shirley Phelps-Roper, Phelps' daughter and an attorney for the church, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "It is not now nor will it ever be OK to be gay."

Chris Hampton, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Phelps represents "the most extreme fringe."

School officials asked Mathewson to turn his shirt inside-out or to go home both times he wore the gay-pride T-shirts, he said recently. The ACLU says its attorneys are considering legal action after school district administrators said they were not going to alter the dress code to allow Mathewson to wear the shirts.

Familiar Foes

The ACLU and Phelps are familiar foes. Phelps receives the ACLU's news releases, and it monitors his. Where the ACLU acts, Phelps' group frequently follows. Phelps announced his intention to picket in Webb City with a statement that included a cartoon of a serpent wearing a suit and the caption "Anti-Christ Lawsuit Union."

Phelps' protests routinely attract attention.

"People freak out when he comes to town," Hampton said.

Stephen Handwerk, an activist from Lafayette, La., said Phelps' group visited his town last year.

Handwerk said six protesters including children, all related to Phelps, picketed local churches on a Sunday and the grade school on a Monday. Their signs included a banner that said "Fags Brought Down the Space Shuttle (Columbia)."

The gay-rights community, Handwerk said, does not consider the Phelps group a threat, but is worried that others use it to justify their own anti-gay views.

Phelps has other motives, he said.

"Their biggest hope is that their freedom of speech is encroached so they can sue the city," Handwerk said. "They want those counter-protesters to lose it."

Mathewson's mother, Marion Mathewson, said Wednesday that she was "gearing up" for Phelps' visit.

Webb City school Superintendent Ron Lankford said protests will not be allowed on the high-school campus.

"We will not let anyone picket on school property," Lankford said. "The only thing I'm interested in is making sure it does not disrupt the school day."

Peaceful protest

Phelps-Roper said 10 to 15 protesters will stand near the street and will not go onto school or private property. She said they will notify local law enforcement of who they are and what they are about before the protest.

"We want to let them know what we are doing, what our intentions are, and that we are lawful and peaceful," she said.

In some instances, she said, the local law enforcement might have officers stand by to keep the peace, depending on the reaction of those who show up.

The group, she said, probably will protest at area churches on Sunday, Nov. 28. "We protest all the main denominations - Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Baptists," she said.

Phelps protested at a Missouri Baptist Convention meeting Oct. 26, 1993, outside Joplin's Hammons Trade Center.

Phelps-Roper told the Globe on Wednesday that the Westboro Baptist Church group protests other congregations because they preach tolerance.

"They all have the big lie that 'God loves everyone,' and they all enable sin by that device, with the big lie," she said. "They all look alike about this issue of homosexuality."

The churches say they are against sin, "but when they tell people that God loves anyone, what possible incentive do they have to live as the Scripture requires, sober, righteous and godly?" she said.

At that point in the interview, a noise arose in the background. Phelps-Roper apparently then turned away from the telephone, and said, "Can anyone answer the g--d----- doorbell?" and then waited for the Globe's next question.

There are three reasons to praise the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Phelps-Roper said next.

"Because you are supposed to thank God for everything because all things flow from and depend upon the Lord, your God," she said. "The second is because he didn't kill all of us on Sept. 11. The third reason is because it is a righteous thing. If you believe the Bible and you serve the Lord, your God, with all your heart, all your soul and all your might, you know without even a question, if you have bothered to search the Scriptures, that it is a righteous thing when the Lord, God, executes judgment in that fashion upon a rebellious people. It is a comforting thing."

Hampton offered her own advice about reacting to Phelps' protests.

"You shouldn't try to stop him from expressing his beliefs," she said. "You should counter it with your own views."

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