Yesterday, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas came to Montpelier in response to recent legislation allowing same-sex marriage in Vermont. The legislation took effect on September 1, which is why they timed their visit to that day. They are actually picketing in several cities in Vermont, but they came to Montpelier, the state capital, yesterday morning, protesting at Montpelier High School, the State House and at City Hall. Although the Church is led by Fred Phelps, recent picket actions have been led by Shirley Phelps-Roper. This organization became infamous in 1998 for their picketing actions at the funeral of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, who was beaten to death because of his homosexuality. They enraged even more people when, in 2005, they started picketing the funerals of fallen American soldiers. They have also picketed at the funerals of Coretta Scott King, Fred Rogers and Jerry Falwell. It should be noted that the WBC is not affiliated with any Baptist organizations or associations.
The local community in Montpelier responded with a counter-protest of about 50 to 75 people, overwhelming the 4 adults and 1 child from the WBC. Both the protest and the counter-protest were well-behaved, with little to no profanity on either side and no violence between the groups, although the signs of the WBC, such as “God Hates Fags” certainly attempted to evoke moral or emotional violence. In response to this, students at Montpelier High School organized an on-line donation page on Facebook, suggesting that a donation of $1 be given for each minute that the WBC picketed, donations going to GLAD (the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders). The duration of the WBC’s picketing at the high school ended up at 27 minutes. So far the group has raised in excess of $5,000.
The counter-protest was well attended by local gays and lesbians as well as by many Vermonters who value freedom of choice. There was some street theater with costumed individuals; there was chanting, “Take your hate out of our state;” occasional bouts of singing, and all-in-all a rather festive response to the hate-mongering of the WBC. The picketing action and the counter-protest started at the high school between 7:30 and 8:00 AM, timed to coincide with the arrival of the students, and then moved to the State House and City Hall, ending by 10:00 AM. The Montpelier City Police handled the situation with restraint, keeping a presence near-by but not interfering in anything and on the whole acted quite admirably, as one might hope for and expect. Footage of the event was captured by ORCA Media, the community access public TV network where I am currently employed. The footage has been posted to Youtube.
It is likely that the picket and the counter-protest led to some lively discussion yesterday evening at the dinner tables and in the living rooms of the community. Perhaps husbands and wives or parents and children were motivated to discuss their feelings on the subject of same-sex marriage or freedom of speech. This is the true value of allowing such hate-mongering speech into a community; to make aware the inner feelings of individuals about such things, and to foster new understandings through discussion and reflection. It is doubtful whether the members of the WBC, with their antithetical approach to such issues, understand the positive influence that they may have on the consciousness and liberality of the communities which they visit.