WBC, USF students square off during peaceful protest

They came prepared with family, friends, signs and chants. Some even wore costumes.

More than 100 students and community members stood outside the Catholic Student Center and USF Hillel Jewish Student Center on Monday to counter-protest a demonstration by four members of Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), an independent group based in Topeka, Kan.

The church members were there to do some protesting of their own, holding picket signs containing Biblical references and controversial messages targeting homosexuals, Jews, Catholics, soldiers and America as a whole.

USF protesters yelled a variety of chants throughout the rally, which lasted about a half hour, including “Go home!” and “Filth!” Some recited the Lord’s Prayer, and a female student came dressed as pop artist Lady Gaga, a recent target of WBC.

Counter-protester Tamara Sugar held a sign that read, “My God loves all people.” She attended all of WBC’s protests Monday, which included Tampa Catholic High School and Plant High School, where her son Sebastian Foxworth, 18, is weeks away from graduation.

Foxworth is a member of his school’s junior ROTC program and plans to serve in the Marines after graduation – a decision Sugar said is not worthy of condemnation.

“Who are they to tell me that my son – if he dies in Iraq – that it is because of my sins?” she said. “(My son’s) going to protect people like that … So, when they tell me that if he dies it’s because of my sin – no. If he dies, it’s because God’s chosen for him to die as their protector.”

Sugar said the turnout at USF was “incredible” compared to the morning’s earlier protests. She estimated that three times as many people attended USF’s rally.

“I think we ran them off. I think they ran away like cowards,” she said.

Father Alan Weber, director of the USF Catholic Student Center, said the original plan was to have no counter-protesters. However, when a number of student organizations wanted to assemble, he and Director of USF Hillel Rabbi Ed Rosenthal decided it was best to let them do so while managing the situation with University Police (UP) for student safety.

UP, which had 13 officers on scene, used yellow police tape to section off an area in front of the USF Hillel Jewish Student Center, with WBC protesters on the opposite side of 50th Street. No arrests were made.

The opportunity to oppose WBC’s message was something students relished, Weber said.

“Students have had the opportunity to see … the good that’s on campus and the good people on campus, and that good is worth standing up for and being committed to,” he said.

However, WBC member LeeAnn Phelps said the church’s protest was meant to spread goodness.

“There’s no better way to love your neighbor as yourself other than to come out and tell them the truth – God’s truth – the only truth there is,” Phelps said. “Any other position or opinion doesn’t matter, and this is the way you do it. You come out and you bring a … pure gospel message and you deliver that to people.”

For Natasha Palmer, that message did not inspire love.

Her husband, Sgt. Jesse Utterback, is stationed in Kuwait as a member of the Army National Guard. He is on his second deployment for the War in Iraq and was among the first units sent to the region when the war began in 2003.

“There was no way I could sit on my couch knowing that these people were going to be down the road from me wishing death upon my husband and all the soldiers who fight for them – to spew their ignorance on the street. It makes me livid,” said Palmer, who also wanted to show support for her gay friends and family members.

She said her husband is very proud of her for attending the event.

Rosenthal said all the students who made their voices heard should feel proud, too.

“When (WBC) travels around and picket schools, synagogues and churches, the standard response is for people to say, ‘Ignore them. They’re not worth the … breath that we expend to protest them,'” he said. “But students aren’t so easily appeased. Students feel that their voice has to be heard, and they want to stand up.”

Regina Harvey, a physics major and president of the Student Atheist Alliance, echoed Rosenthal’s words, saying that hate is unacceptable.

“The world would be a better place if we were all understanding and tolerant of one another,” she said.

But WBC’s message is not one of understanding said member Taylor Drain. Drain, 18, said the group doesn’t try to change people but instead tells them an important message that is often ignored.

“We’re not trying to change anyone. We can’t. That’s not our prerogative. We have no power over the hearts of man,” she said. “All we can do is get out here and say the word, and after that, they have no excuse. (On the) day of judgment, they can’t say to God, ‘I didn’t know the standards. I didn’t know how to serve you.’… They have no excuse now.”