Anti-gay group plans Columbia protest

A controversial religious group known for protesting at military funerals is coming to Columbia on Thursday.

The Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), whose members often carry anti-gay signs, will protest a recent decision by the Columbia City Council to recognize gay couples.

"They are really a marginal group," said Marie Glaze, a human rights specialist with the city of Columbia. "And I think the tendency for most people will be to ignore them."

The WBC, which is not affiliated with any national Baptist organization, say they are protesting the city's domestic partnership registry. The registry, which passed unanimously in April, recognizes Columbia gay and lesbian couples as partners, giving them more benefits.

"I'm sorry they're coming," said Pastor Jim Bryan, with Columbia's United Methodist Church. "They are so heinous in the way they go about their business."

Bryan has been with the church for nine years. He says the group plans to picket his church because of their "open door" program, which supports gay and lesbian church members.

They "will be out here on the street just saying very hateful, ugly things and it's done in the name of the church," said Bryan. "It's done in the name of Christ. And you know, it's appalling. It's appalling to me."

Bryan says he doesn't want to give the WBC any more attention than they're already getting. But he's not totally ignoring them either. He plans to hold a peaceful, non-confrontational counter-protest at the church with songs and scripture.

In 2005, the WBC came to Jefferson City, upset over a bill banning protests at military funerals. The group often protests at funerals for US soldiers, carrying signs saying: "Thank God for dead soldiers," and "You're going to Hell."

When the WBC came to the Capitol building they brought signs calling legislators the "Missouri Taliban."

"We're here to tell the Missouri Taliban that they don't have enough power, they can't pass enough laws, to change the fact that this nation has institutionalized disobedience to God," one of the members said at the time. "And therefore God is cursing this nation."

"And they're going to hell," the woman's young son yelled.

Members of the Westboro Church believe the U.S. has condemned itself by accepting homosexuality. Because of their virulent anti-gay messages they have been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The WBC's founder, Fred Phelps and his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper were both recently banned from the UK, along with right-wing radio talk show host Michael Savage.

Police plan to increase their presence in Columbia Thursday but not to the same level as when the Nazi's demonstrated. WBC members plan to picket at Columbia's City hall, starting around noon.

They will then move to the United Methodist Church around 12:30 p.m and will wrap up the day in St. Louis, protesting the Elton John/Billy Joel concert.

Officials with the Columbia Human Rights Commission say they will have a "peaceful alternative" to the protest at the United Methodist Church, starting around noon. They will also show a documentary about the Westboro group from 7-9 p.m. Wednesday at the Columbia Health Department.

"They're here to shout hatred," said Bryan. "And we're here to celebrate love."