Westboro comes to town

By Andy Balaskovitz

The infamous Westboro Baptist Church meets a sea of counter-protesters in East Lansing

Thursday, Nov. 18 — Two filmmakers who have been following the Westboro Baptist Church since June said today’s counter-protest at East Lansing High School is one of the biggest they have seen.

T.J. Connor and Chris Gentile of Nu Reel Media in Chicago have been to Westboro Baptist Church’s funeral protests in Nebraska and counter-protests at the Supreme Court.

“This is probably the biggest counter-protest we have seen,” Connor said. “This was chaos.”

protest.jpgHundreds of people lined Burcham Drive and Old Hickory Lane in East Lansing to show their disdain for the church.

Connor said the film crew has been to 20 to 25 pickets involving the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based Christian organization notorious for picketing at U.S. soldiers’ funerals and generally loathsome of anyone it sees as “gay enablers.”

The group’s website is www.godhatesfags.com, if that says anything.

Westboro claims that God hates America because it is filled with people who accept homosexuality and military deaths are God’s punishment for it. The funeral pickets are also the subject of the Supreme Court case “Snyder vs. Phelps,” which is challenging the Church’s First Amendment right to do so.

The Rev. Fred Phelps founded the church in 1955. The church claims to be an “Old School (or, Primitive) Baptist Church,” that preaches against “all forms of sin,” according to its website.

The filmmakers have also spent time at the homes of some Westboro members, and said some of them are actually “pop culture junkies.”

“They play Nintendo Wii and watch ‘Family Guy’ all the time,” Gentile said. “They all have iPhones too. They totally embrace the American lifestyle.”

protest2.jpg“They can turn all this (hate speech) off and be charming people,” Connor said.

However, that makes them highly contradictory, Connor added, and “interesting First Amendment test cases.”

The film, to be titled “Judgment Day: Snyder v. Phelps,” focuses on the group’s constitutional right to picket at places like soldiers’ funerals.

“They definitely push the envelope of free speech,” Connor said. “It’s the worst kind of speech out there, yet it’s protected.”

Connor said the crew has more than 100 hours of footage of Westboro and will cover a few more pickets. Then it’s on to “months of editing,” he said.

Three church members stood on the east side of Old Hickory Lane near East Lansing High School holding signs that read “God Hates Fag Enablers,” “God Hates Fags” and “You Hate Your Kids.”

On the west side of Old Hickory, hundreds of counter protesters shouted obscenities and various Michigan State University chants. One way the counter-protesters reacted to Westboro was through humor.

A small sampling included signs that read, “I thought this was a legalize marijuana rally,” “Where are all the strippers?,” “God hates signs” and “God hates figs.”

“We see the humor everywhere we go,” Connor said.