RACINE — The numbers were lopsided against the Westboro Baptist Church Sunday, as the Kansas-based anti homosexual, anti-Catholic and anti-Semite organization held the first of two planned protests in Racine.
Just six Westboro protesters, several with signs bearing vulgar sayings and drawings, gathered for about 20 minutes late Sunday afternoon at the northwest corner of Durand and Drexel avenues. Across Durand Avenue, a crowd of more than 150 people representing gay organizations, veterans groups, bikers and religious organizations held a counterprotest and tried to drown out the chanting and singing of the Westboro members. A small group of counterprotesters also gathered at the northeast corner of the intersection.
The protest, which Westboro officials originally said would be at nearby St. Lucy Catholic Church, 3101 Drexel Ave., began at about 4:30 p.m. It resulted in no arrests and concluded peacefully with the Westboro members leaving the area by vehicle. They are in southeast Wisconsin for a series of protests at schools and Catholic facilities in Racine, Milwaukee and Kenosha.
“Westboro Baptist is basically a family-run hate business. We frequently call them the most obnoxious hate group in America because they have engaged in protests that are so vile,” said Heidi Beirich, spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups across America.
Beirich said the group, largely made up of members of the large family of the late Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., first came to national prominence with its protests after the death of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay man from Wyoming who was beaten to death by homophobic attackers. The group then revved up its anti-gay crusade by protesting outside the funerals of soldiers, many killed in the line of duty.
Those actions are what brought out Glen Olson, 36, a pipe fitter from Kenosha and 16-year military veteran, who on Sunday carried a heavy section of flag pole from his yard that flew the U.S. and POW/MIA flags.
“My buddy on my bracelet here, Raymond Spencer, died in 2007 by an IED in Iraq. They (Westboro) wanted to protest his funeral,” Olson said. “I’m all for freedom, we fight for it, but when you’re protesting funerals and the people who went over and fought for it (freedom), it’s wrong.”
Other counterprotesters waved the rainbow flag of the LGBT community, banners that read “Expect grace” and simple posters scrawled out on poster board like the big red heart carried by Courtney Dock, 26, a metal polisher from Racine.
“We think there’s enough hate here, so were out here with love and happy and peace. It’s such an ugly message over there, we’re just hoping to help out,” Dock said.
Why St. Lucy’s was selected as a target by Westboro mystified many. Pat Mcleod, business manager for the parish, speculated that perhaps it was because it is one of the largest parishes in the community and is so close to busy Durand Avenue. Rusty Clark, a parish member and vice chairman of the Racine County Board, thought it might have to do with St. Lucy’s being one of the few Catholic churches in the area to offer a Sunday evening Catholic Mass.
Shirley Lynn Phelps-Roper, one of the most visible members of the Phelps family and Westboro, called Wisconsin “Catholic Central” in middle America and said the church is in the region this week in part to decry Pope Francis’ planned trip to America in September.
When asked if she was daunted by the large counterprotest, Phelps-Roper was unfazed.
“If you had eyes, you would see this place is surrounded by the great crowd of witnesses and the angels of God,” Phelps-Roper said. “This is going to only end one way. It’s going to be really bad for this country.”
Julio Angel Villarreal, 29, who helped coordinate turnout by the gay community for Sunday’s counterprotest, was pleased with its effectiveness and promised to be out today for Westboro’s planned protest at Horlick.
“This was a huge success. It got drowned out majorly. Right now it’s Racine 1, Westboro 0,” Villarreal said.