Notorious anti-gay church that got the neighbours it deserved

America Letter: Kansas to see same-sex unions despite Westboro Baptist

The late Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, which attacks the US government as immoral for tolerating homosexuality. Photograph: Steve Hebert/New York Times

The late Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, which attacks the US government as immoral for tolerating homosexuality. Photograph: Steve Hebert/New York Times

 

Newton’s third law – that every action has an equal and opposite reaction – can be easily proved in debates on many social issues being fought between ideological opposites in American public life.

This is particularly so when such dramatic changes are afoot, be it on gay marriage, the legislation of marijuana or the repeal of the death penalty.

Nowhere is this more visible than on Orleans Street in Topeka, Kansas, which would be typical of any residential street in the middle of America if it weren’t for two unmissable opposing forces on opposite sides of the road.

On one side is Equality House, the headquarters of the non-profit group Planting Peace, which promotes positive change for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

On the other is the Westboro Baptist Church, the anti-gay zealots who attack the government as immoral for tolerating homosexuality. The church, led by the family of the late Fred Phelps, gained notoriety for protesting at funerals of US soldiers killed in action with “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” placards.

Yesterday, Planting Peace held their second annual “Drag Down Bigotry,” a drag queen show held to raise awareness about gay issues, in front of the church. The party is a fun-filled event aimed at the hateful bile emanating from the church opposite where an electric sign displays anti-gay slogans behind fences and under security cameras.

Founder’s inspiration

The idea of Equality House came to Planting Peace founder Aaron Jackson by accident one day when he was searching online for the Westboro Baptist Church on Google Earth. He saw that a house across the street was for sale. He investigated further, found another house for sale and bought it for $83,000. In January 2013, the group moved in.

Three months later, the group painted the house in the gay pride rainbow colours. The house has become a symbol for LGBT rights and a magnet for activists. On a sunny day, it can can attract as many as 100 visitorswho like to be photographed in front of it.

“Our goal was to simply play a role in countering the message of the [Westboro Baptist Church],” said Jackson. The church, he believes, helps the LGBT community because it unites and rallies people in opposition to them.

“A lot of the hatred is not very tangible. They are definitely a face to that and it allows people to see how people truly are,” he said.

Planting Peace launched a fundraiser for the charity supported by the late actor Robin Williams after the church said that it planned to protest at his funeral in August. The group raised $100,000. “It is little things like that,” he said. “It really just drives communities together.”

Kansas, controlled by a conservative state government led by Republican governor Sam Brownback, has resisted gay marriage, though same-sex unions may inevitably come through legal challenges in other states.

The Supreme Court refused to review an appeal on a same-sex marriage ban earlier this month, a move that raised the number of states permitting gay unions from 19 to 24 along with the District of Columbia. Kansas was not one of them but the ruling paves the way for gay marriage there and in five more states because they fall into the same appeals court circuit covered by the decision.

As gay marriage continues its rapid state-by-state sweep, Planting Peace’s campaign has been joined by “The Facebook God”: a satirical Facebook page with 1.8 million “likes” which has raised more than $100,000 from a crowd-funding website. The money is financing billboard adverts posted in Topeka for the first time last month with the message “God Loves Gays.”

‘God’ on Facebook

The Facebook comedian known as “God” responded to some questions from The Irish Times. (He declined to speak by phone because, he said, “My booming God voice might melt your head.”)

The Westboro Baptist Church were “the most vocal proponents of the idea that I, the lord, am a bigot,” he said.

“I have returned now to refute the evil lies said about me in the media. Also, being omniscient I knew that placing my message of love in their hometown would catch the most attention from the media. The news media is drawn to the [Westboro Baptist Church] like flies to s**t,” he said.

This has caused an equal and opposite reaction from the church, which has responded with four billboards of its own in Topeka, including one with the message: “Homosexuality is a sin”.

“God” was thrilled with the response, noting that they had wasted funds which means less money to pay for their protest trips.

“No one cared about their billboards because people have become immune to their nonsense and stupidity. It was a complete waste of their money. I encourage them to do more of the same,” he said.

“God” said he plans to donate some money to Planting Peace once he meets “a good accountant . . . to discuss the taxes that must be paid.”

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