BRANDON, Miss. - Members of the far-right Westboro Baptist Church showed up here April 16 to protest the funeral of Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jason Rogers, who was slain in Afghanistan on April 7. However, local residents caught wind of the incoming protesters, and banded together to protect the family and friends of Staff Sgt. Rogers as they mourned his loss.
The Westboro Baptist Church, led by its pastor Fred Phelps, has protested at military funerals, funerals of victims of gay-bashing, concerts and countless other events, for years. By their own count, they have participated in over 30,000 pickets. They say that God hates America for its tolerance of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community and that dead soldiers, terrorist attacks and natural disasters - among a myriad of other tragedies - are divine retribution for this tolerance. These protests often include signs such as "God hates fags," and "Thank God for dead soldiers," as well as flag desecration.
They are not affiliated with any Baptist organizations, and are extremely critical of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and Hindus. Needless to say this group, consisting mostly of one large family, has faced much opposition in its self-proclaimed message of hate.
However, in Brandon, Mississippi, it appears as if they may have been outmaneuvered by members of the local community, and they did not show up at the funeral itself. Thankfully for the Rogers family, Staff Sgt. Rogers was buried in peace.
The Supreme Court recently ruled that these "protests" at military funerals, while tasteless and hurtful, fall under the First Amendment's free-speech protections. However, a West Virginia court acquitted a man of assault after he spit tobacco juice at Shirley Phelps-Roper (one of the leaders of the church) as the church protested the deaths of miners in West Virginia.
So, it may be legal for the Phelps group to protest at funerals, but it is also legal to spit in their faces.
Corrected 4/25/11: An earlier version of this article cited reports of incidents involving the Brandon police, but those reports could not be confirmed.
Photo: Westboro Baptist Church protests at a funeral in Chalco, Neb., in June 2008. anyofne CC 2.0