Protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church – known for its anti-gay protests at churches, schools and military funerals – made an appearance at Fort Zumwalt West High to protest a healthy breakfast program on Aug. 25.
At least that’s what their news release vaguely suggested. Authorities weren’t quite sure when six or so protesters piled out of a white minivan at the entrance of the school on Mexico Road in O’Fallon.
They turned on a blaring recording of a religious song and held signs ranging from “God Hates Pride” to “America is Doomed” among others. They stomped on an American flag or two and waved the signs for about 25 minutes. Then, they piled back into the minivan and were off to a protest at the St. Louis Cardinals game at Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis. The Cardinals were holding a Pride night for the LGBT community that evening.
In O’Fallon, the Westboro Baptist protest was greeted by a counter-protest on the other side of Mexico Road. O’Fallon police estimate that about 100 people, who took a strong exception to Westboro’s world view, took part. A line of five or six vehicles with young people occasionally paraded past the Westboro protesters, gunning their engines and exchanging “pleasantries” and hand gestures.
When a few of the counter-protesters started wandering across Mexico Road, O’Fallon Police stepped in to keep the counter-protesters separated from the church members. Once the minivan was gone, the scene in front of the school returned to normal.
The event was perplexing to Fort Zumwalt School District Superintendent Bernard DuBray, who said the church notified O’Fallon police that they planned a protest at the high school.
“They say they selected the high school at random,” DuBray said. He also noted that the church did not notify the school.
But why the church chose the school remains “pretty convoluted,” DuBray said.
The news release sent by the church noted that the district boasts a free healthy breakfast provided each day. “Sounds like a pretty good program. However, there is much greater need for spiritual food for the languished souls of this high school,” the release stated. It went on to say that American youth are “anorexic and spiritually dead” and “brainwashed” to embrace sin. “If their parents cannot be relied upon to literally feed their kids before school, what expectation is there they have spiritually fed them with Bible reading, prayer and practical instruction?” it asked.
“When you put two and two together, they [the Westboro protesters] come from Topeka, Kansas, so they come down I-70 and West High School is one of the bigger high schools in the state,” DuBray said. “They probably thought that would be a big stop off before they got to the Cardinals. They also count on some counter-protesters coming out and they figure they can get some press with the yelling back and forth.”
What the school district didn’t want was the protest to happen at the same time students were getting out of school.
The district decided to dismiss students at 1 p.m.
“You see what they did when they learned we were coming, they actually canceled school,” said Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of the protesters. Stepped back as police talked to several masked men who walked up to the fenced area where the Westboro protesters stood and said, “go back where you came from, the community doesn’t want you here.”
“This is what the nation has been reduced to,” Phelps-Roper said. “You’ve got the mob running the show.” She said the “public school is where they teach them to murder their babies and rebel against God. Every school, it’s all the same.”
She said the church has picketed in small towns, large towns and schools often several times a week for 27 years. “We’re telling you that the verdict is this nation is doomed,” she said.
The church has picketed in the school district before. In 2012, it picketed in front of Fort Zumwalt East High. “My advice
“My advice is stay away, you do not want to give them any kind of voice,” DuBray said. “If you are going to go there and yell at them because they are presenting these extremist views, that is doing what they want.”
But some counter-protesters said they couldn’t stay away. They too carried signs such as “Love not Hate” and some wore costumes and wigs.
“I wanted to support the parents and kids out there and let them know that our community would stand up to this,” said one counter-protester. Lisa Prestegard, of St. Peters, said, “I have many friends who are gay. The only way to get rid of hate is to pour more love on it. Hate doesn’t exist without the absence of love.”
Rose Lockwood, of O’Fallon, came out because she didn’t want “haters” in county neighborhoods. The specter of recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, also may have contributed to the turnout.
“Absolutely, I think everyone who is aware of what’s going on should stand up for what I consider to be my values and I hope everybody else’s value,” Lockwood said. “It’s being kind to one another, and tolerance and acceptance, and live and let live, and I get to be who I want to be and you get to be who you want to be.”