Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2014

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Anti-gay group outnumbered

The 10 members of a homosexual-hating group from Kansas were outnumbered 25-1 by counter-protesters at Las Vegas Academy this morning.

And though both sides accused each other of sinning, nobody threw the first stone.

No one was arrested during the 45-minute demonstration by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, across the street from the school at 7th Street and Bridger Avenue.

The protesting began at 6:30 a.m. and attracted at least 250 counter-protesters who stood on the school's side of the street. The sides were kept separated by more than two dozen police, including some on bicycles and horses.

At one point police had to talk one person into keeping away from the Kansans, and an angry counter-protester who had been yelling and throwing wadded up paper had to be prevented from crossing the street three times, but otherwise it was a battle of sign-waving and slogan-shouting.

The Kansas organization's effort was led by four women and two children who wore T-shirts that said GodhatesAmerica.com.

The group, which has no affiliation with the mainstream Baptist church, was protesting the school's production of "The Laramie Project," which tells the story of Matt Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998 because he was gay.

"We are the messengers of God and our message is that the wrath of God is coming down on this nation," said Jael Phelps, 19, the granddaughter of the Kansas group's founder, Fred Phelps.

Asked about the size of the counter-protest, Phelps said, "I've seen bigger."

She said the counter-protest did not bother her because Jesus Christ was persecuted by larger crowds for speaking in the minority.

The church knew how to get the crowd's goat with signs that read: "Thank God for AIDS," "God Hates Fag-Enablers," "Matt -- Five Years in Hell," and "God Blew Up the Shuttle." The protesters also wiped their feet on U.S. flags.

The group said God hates the United States because the nation accepts homosexuality.

The counter-protesters offered messages of tolerance and support for the students at the school. Their signs read: "God bless our L.V.A. students," "No-Hate Zone," "Embrace life, love and diversity, not hate," "God loves, people hate."

Bob and Carole Steffen, members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregational Church of Las Vegas said they came to today's event to oppose radical preachings about God.

"The world will not start to heal if we do not accept different people for who they are," Bob Steffen said. "We must accept the dignity and worth of people and welcome people as equals in their expression of their lives."

Jere Keys, editor of Q Vegas, a magazine geared toward the valley's homosexual community, said the Kansas group sends a message that is "revolting and disgusting" knowing that it will provoke such a response.

"God doesn't hate anyone," he said.

Keys said the counter-protesters' peaceful reaction to the hate-mongers should help highlight the message that love is stronger than hate.

Many of the counter-protesters said their primary goals were to show support for the students at the school and to show that Las Vegas rejects messages of hate.

Instead of dropping students off in front of the school where the demonstrations were ongoing, school buses let them out nearby so they could avoid the crowds, Clark County School District Police spokesman Darnell Couthen.

The move also was intended to protect the students, he said.

Las Vegas Academy Principal Stephen Clark said about 400 students gathered around a flagpole behind the school this morning to hold hands and pray.

The Westboro group, which travels nationwide to protest events with gay themes, is in Las Vegas this week primarily to be on shock jock Howard Stern's radio show, being aired from the Hard Rock Hotel.

The protest was a follow-up to a flier the group placed on its Web site that called the Academy a "sodomite whorehouse." Members of the Kansas group, which in 2001 held protests that drew little local attention at the Liberace Museum and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, say it's their duty to enlighten sinners to give them a chance to save their souls.

The Anti-Defamation League has called the group, which is comprised mostly of Phelps family members, "virulently homophobic." Phelps also has leveled verbal attacks on Jews, blacks and other Christian faiths and protested at Shepard's funeral.

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