Crowd peacefully counters Westboro Church protest

EVERETT — Members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., who have traveled around the nation to condemn everything from gay marriage to conservative commentator Glenn Beck, brought their road show to four Everett churches on Sunday.

The group targeted the churches, as it has many others, for preaching what members believe is false Christianity. Eight Westboro members, including two children, held signs with slogans such as “God H8S Lukewarm Christians,” “God Hates Your Prayers” and several with gay-related slurs. They were met by a growing group of counterdemonstrators, who eventually numbered close to 50, throughout the morning.

Counterprotesters came from as far as Portland, Ore., and Bellingham and carried signs bearing messages such as “God Loves Everyone,” “Sinners Are Winners,” and “Take Your Hatemongering Back to Westboro.” One demonstrator carried a sign that said, “Worship Satan.”

The groups yelled back and forth but the encounters were peaceful. At least one police officer cruised by or was stationed at each of the sites. Westboro timed its protests to greet congregation members arriving for services, but both groups stayed on public property and had little contact with church members coming and going.

The groups stood near the entrances to Canyon Creek Church and Northshore Christian Church and Academy, both near the Boeing plant; the Christian Faith Center in south Everett, and the New Life Center on Madison Street. The Westboro group had planned to finish the morning at St. Mary Magdalen Catholic parish in south Everett but did not show.

When asked why these five churches in particular were targeted, Westboro spokesman Steve Drain said before the visit, “You could swing a dead cat in Washington state and find a false church. The scripture says no women preachers, no divorce or remarriage in churches of good standing. There’s a lot of heresy going on with those churches up there and we’ve got to warn them about it.”

Officials at some of the targeted churches said beforehand that their strategy was to ignore the Westboro group.

The Northshore Christian Church and Academy was visited by Westboro members during a military funeral a couple of years ago, facilities manager Pat Hart said.

“Our official response is non-engagement,” he said. “There just seems no reason to react to it.”

“They’re just trying to get attention.” said Brandon Beals, pastor at Canyon Creek.

Jeremy Carpenter, campus pastor at the Christian Faith Center, said Sunday their plan also was to ignore the Westboro group.

“Our thing is, it’s just unfortunate that these people spend their lives for what they’re against instead of being for something,” he said.

Some counterprotesters said it was better to oppose Westboro’s message than to ignore them. Otherwise, said Tiffany Peterson, 26, of Bellingham, “you’re just pushing their agenda forward.”

Jayson Garner, 25, of Everett, organized part of the counterdemonstration. He checked with the local churches first, he said.

“I kind of decided I didn’t really want them in Everett,” he said of Westboro. “I’ve lived in Everett my entire life. We’ve never been openly hateful to people. I have grown up in an environment very accepting of anyone of a different culture, religion or race.”

The Snohomish County Commission on Human Rights issued a statement Friday in advance of Westboro’s anticipated arrival, chairwoman Meg Winch said. The five-member volunteer panel is appointed by the County Council.

The commission “opposes hatred in its many forms and expressions,” the statement read. “We also advocate for constitutional First Amendment rights to free speech.” The statement embraced the non-violent protest tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as an appropriate response.

“We celebrate human diversity that strengthens individuals, communities and nations,” the statement said.

The Westboro Baptist Church was founded by Fred Phelps in 1955. Phelps, now 82, still leads the group, which includes many of his family members. It’s not affiliated with any Baptist organization.

The church has about 75 members, some of whom regularly travel around the country to demonstrate outside churches, universities, military funerals and other sites or events. On Friday, the group demonstrated near the University of Washington, the Seattle Anti-Defamation League and at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Westboro members praise military deaths as a punishment from God. They take a similar view of the shootings in Aurora, Colo., on July 20 in which 12 people were murdered and dozens wounded at a movie theater. James Holmes, 24, has been charged with the crime.

“Yes, God sent that shooter to execute vengeance upon the heathen and punishments upon the people, and we at WBC praise his blessed name for it,” church member Tim Phelps said in a web post.

On Sunday, the Westboro group’s treatment of the American flag drew perhaps the strongest reaction. The spokesman, Drain, tucked a flag into his belt which he allowed to drag on the ground and stepped on it occasionally. A woman in the group wore a flag tied around her waist as a skirt, upside down.

“This is a nation awash in sin,” Drain said during a yelling match with counterprotestors outside Canyon Creek. “America is doomed.”

“That’s really tough; families have people who live and die for this country,” Northshore congregation member Douglas Judy said, watching the groups from afar. “They say there are sinners in this church? I say this is a good place for them.”

Catherine Lockhart, 29, of Everett, said her husband is an Army reservist who has served in Iraq. She held a sign reading, “God Loves Veterans.”

Peterson noted that Westboro also sent a group to demonstrate outside a Glenn Beck appearance in Dallas on Saturday. The group refers to Beck as a false prophet.

“They hate everyone and everything that isn’t them,” Peterson said. “I guess they get points for consistency.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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