A group of Temple University students traveled to the Lehigh Valley on Friday to protest an anti-homosexual church congregation.
The Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, led by Rev. Fred Phelps, flew to Allentown and Bethlehem, Pa. over the weekend to support a Bethlehem minister who suggested that the Sept. 11 attacks were divine retribution for the United States’ acceptance of homosexuals.
The group said it would target Lehigh University and Cedar Crest College as well as seven “queer-friendly” churches, according to a Dec. 1 story in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The group is known for its inflammatory rhetoric.
They claim that the AIDS virus is God’s punishment for homosexuals and often displays signs with slogans like “No Tears for Queers” and “Thank God for AIDS,” according to the Inquirer article.
It was this ideology that Temple’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group, the Lambda Alliance, headed to Allentown on Friday to oppose.
Similar groups from Widener University and the University of Pennsylvania joined members of the Alliance.
Armed with signs and handouts, the students traveled together in carloads to Bethlehem and Allentown to rebut Westboro’s demonstrations.
“I received word of this event a few weeks ago,” said Lambda president Christina Molieri.
“I couldn’t just sit by and let this happen. We had to do something, so I passed the message along to a few other groups at the local schools, and got two of them to come up with us.”
About 70 counter-demonstrators gathered at Packer and Fillmore Avenues on the campus of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, but inclement weather prevented the Westboro group’s flight from arriving on time.
The congregation skipped Lehigh and went straight to Cedar Crest College in Allentown, which had recently given an award to lesbian tennis legend Billie Jean King.
About 12 members of the Westboro congregation showed up for the demonstration, where they were met by a group of about 100 counter-demonstrators who had stationed themselves on the other side of the street.
Many of the counter-demonstrators were students from Cedar Crest, and some were residents of the neighborhood around the school.
Local police stood by to prevent a confrontation and direct traffic around the groups.
Westboro member Margie Phelps, the daughter of Rev. Frank Phelps, was present at the demonstration.
She carrying a sign that read “Thank God for September 11.”
“The [Sept. 11] attacks were an attack on the moral tolerance of the homosexuality that is rampant in this country,” she said.
“The United States is a battleground for these issues. We cannot have society that fosters, tolerates and rewards this sinful behavior.”
“All I know is that my God loves everybody,” said Temple student April DiPietro, “and that these people have blinders on to reality.”
“We can’t have this kind of hate and intolerance running unchecked in America,” Molieri said.
“We have enough problems with modern times, and we don’t need people like this running around preaching complete lies.”
Phelps’ group is considered to be on the “lunatic fringe” of conservative Christianity by even the Southern Baptist Convention, which condemns homosexuality and bars homosexuals from its churches.
The mere presence of the group has often required armed escorts to prevent attacks on them by bystanders and counter demonstrators.
Phelps spends most of his time criss-crossing the country to protest gay rights and gay-sympathetic organizations.
According to Phelps, his congregation has staged over 22,000 picketing demonstrations in the United States and other countries over the past 12 years.
Westboro grabbed the national spotlight when it picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay man beaten to death in what became a high-profile hate crime case in Wyoming in 1998.
Eric Raible can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org