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Column by Tom Paulu

What if you announced a celebration of hatred and didn’t show up for your own party?

That’s what happened on Dec. 5, when members of the Westboro Baptist Church didn’t appear to picket Lower Columbia College’s production of “The Laramie Project.”

However, about 300 counter-protesters were out in force to support gays and celebrate diversity.

The announced picketing and eventual non-appearance of the Westboro hate-spreaders is a good example of how extremists manipulate the media, though in this case they got the opposite of what they wanted.

The group ended up galvanizing support for the gay people it opposes.

It started off quietly enough. I was looking forward to writing about “The Laramie Project” mostly because it was the first play ever done in LCC’s new Rose Center. And of all the plays I’ve seen in Longview, the 2003 production of “The Laramie Project” by Longview Stageworks was the most powerful.

The play tells about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student, in Laramie, Wyo.

A couple weeks before the current production opened, several people alerted me that the Westboro Baptist Church planned to picket, as announced on their Web site, godhatesfags.com.

The group seems to make the rounds of productions of “The Laramie Project,” though they weren’t outside the Pepper Theatre here five years ago.

Westboro church members have protested a wide variety of organizations and people, including the pope and Billy Graham. Gay rights activists, as well as Christians of virtually every denomination, have denounced church patriarch Fred Phelps. With only 50 members, Westboro is better described as a hate group than a church.

In their own sorry way, they’re also hooked on publicity, and very good at getting it.

Our first inclination was to ignore the group. I didn’t want coverage of the picketers to overshadow LCC’s new hall and the Center Stage company’s production.

But the word was getting around town, so on Nov. 13 we included a brief story about the planned picketing with our first story about the play. I reviewed the show — and new seats in the theater — and kept checking the Westboro Web site.

The day after Thanksgiving, I called the phone number on one of the faxes the Westboro group sends us every time they’re planning to picket the funeral of an American serviceman who died in Iraq.

I spent a good 20 minutes talking to Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of the church’s founder. I could hear the sound of water running and children in the background. Shirley, who mentioned that she has 11 children, was taking some time from her kitchen work to talk about how homosexuality is an abomination and how President-elect Obama is the antichrist. “The Lord is coming,” she told me. “America is doomed.”

Mark Bergeson, an organizer of the counter-protest, said that group had debated ignoring the Westboro action, too. But LCC student groups felt the need to rally around the drama department, and make a statement about the community’s values.

A local Baptist minister called to tell me that local churches were starting their own public presence to share their belief that God is about love, not hate.

On Dec. 5, the Westboro pickets skipped their party, which didn’t surprise people who organized the counter-protest.

Though most people would say Westboro lost the battle of opinion last week, they may see it as a victory if a few people join their flock — or send checks. Church members believe that only a few people, including themselves of course, are destined for Heaven. Accordng to them, the rest of us, whether Catholic, Mormon or non-believer — will spend an eternity burning in hell.

The picketing is a small volley in the ongoing larger debate about gay rights being fought in courts and state legislatures. Gay rights supporters were surprised when California voters rejected gay marriage last month, but the nation elected a new president who is much more supportive of gays than his predecessor.

In a recent tdn.com poll, 33 percent of the respondents said gays should have the right to marry and another 27 percent favored some civil legal rights. The figures wouldn’t have been nearly as high a decade ago when Matthew Shepard died.

Originally published Dec. 14, 2008.

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