Video by Caron Creighton
In reaction to a protest by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, hundreds of community members and students gathered near the East Lansing High School on Thursday, Nov. 18 to show their opposition while promoting peace and equality.
The Westboro Baptist Church, located in Kansas, has gained notoriety for protesting soldiersâ€™ funerals, claiming their deaths are Godâ€™s punishment for the enablement and acceptance of homosexuality in America.
Three members of the church were present at the protest. Along with shirts promoting their website, www.godhatesfags.com, and upside-down American flags hung from their clothing, the church members held signs with phrases including, â€œYou hate your kids,â€ â€œGod hates fag enablersâ€ and â€œAmerica is doomed.â€
â€œWe are here because these kids have been lied to by their parents, their preachers and their teachers,â€ said Margie Phelps, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. â€œThey are entitled to some truth for a changeâ€
According to East Lansing High School Principal Paula Steele, the protesters were in East Lansing because Margie Phelps was invited to a demonstration at the MSU College of Law, and then family members decided to come to ELHS in response to a letter of opposition sent by one of the students at the high school.
â€œI really think the day went amazingly well. The students were very respectful,â€ Steele said. â€œThey turned it into an opportunity to really show the unity of our student body, and Iâ€™m very proud of that.â€
In order to promote a safe and peaceful environment for the Westboro Baptist Church members as well as the counter-protesters, the East Lansing Police Department provided designated areas partially surrounded by 8-foot tall fences on Old Hickory Lane near the high school for them to safely voice their opinions.
East Lansing City Council Member Nathan Triplett also expressed the importance of providing a safe place for the counter-protests to take place.
â€œOur objective was to provide people who feel like they had to express their opposition a safe venue to do that,â€ said Triplett. â€œWeâ€™ve pretty much done everything in our power to be prepared for this and to encourage the community to respond appropriately.â€
JoAnn Hubbard, a member of the Michigan Peace Team, said that they attend events like this to de-escalate potential violence and to promote a safe, peaceful environment.
According to the Unity in Our Community Coalition, there were no arrests, incidents, or violence at the protests. It turned out to be a very peaceful event, just as hoped for.
Despite the strong message of hate and disapproval the Westboro Baptist Church tried to get across, East Lansing residents came together to spread a message of love and acceptance.
The Unity in Our Community Coalition estimated that there were about 1,000 counter-protesters between the sites on Old Hickory Lane and the All Saints Episcopal Church.
“Weâ€™re here at the rally to promote peace,â€ said Cory Hanrahan, a human biology sophomore at MSU. Hanrahan, along with a group of other students from MSU, came to the counter-protest in order to promote equality and tolerance.
â€œI feel very strongly about these issues,â€ said Ian Hoopingarner, a junior at ELHS. â€œImmediately after we heard about this I think a lot of people were angry and they wanted to do something, but they didnâ€™t have any positive way to channel that energy. I think that is important that we stepped up with a way that they could positively channel that energy.â€
Hoopingarner teamed up with other students at ELHS to initiate a fundraiser in accordance with the counter-protest Peace Party and the Sweep Away the Hate Program that was created in response to the Westboro Baptist Church protest. The fundraiser, which raised a total of $1,210 dollars, was made possible by donations collected at the rally and online.
Hoopingarner said that the proceeds will go towards local groups such as the Alliance of Queer and Ally Students at MSU, the ELHS Gay Straight Alliance and Lansing Area AIDS Network. Along with these local organizations, profits will be contributed to state and nation-wide organizations including Equality Michigan, AIDS Research Alliance and Southern Poverty Law Center. The group plans to make their donations in the name of the Westboro Baptist Church.