Westboro Baptist Plans to Picket 3 Tampa Churches Sunday
By JOHN GREGG, Correspondent, TB Reporter
Others plan to counter Westboro’s demonstrations with a “Wall of Love.”
TAMPA – When word began spreading last weekend that Westboro Baptist Church was planning to picket three churches in Tampa on Sunday (March 19), members of the community began questioning on social media why the chosen congregations had been singled out by the group that the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”
Turns out, it was just a simple matter of logistics.
It is the close proximity of the three churches: Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Hyde Park United Methodist Church (UMC) and First Baptist Church of Tampa that was the determining factor in selection for Westboro’s self-dubbed “God Hates Your Idols Preaching Tour.” Westboro member Margie Phelps, daughter of deceased founder Fred Phelps, whittled down a list of over 30 houses of worship before settling on the trio of churches that, she claims, “enable, coddle, encourage and teach sin.”
She mentioned some churches as having high divorce rates, being gay-inclusive and accepting of misbehavior on the part of clergy.
“You just have to be sensible. I just mapped out what was doable,” said Phelps in a phone interview earlier this week. “As for those three churches, the reality is we could have done a dozen, or two dozen, but we only have so much time on this Sunday morning. We’ve done other churches in Tampa, and Lord willing, we’ll do future churches in Tampa.”
Members of the group have “professional and personal activities” in the area this weekend and worked the planned picketing into their itinerary. “Whenever we travel anywhere, we’re going to avail ourselves of that opportunity to go to the streets and plead repentance, as we’ve done now for almost 27 years,” Phelps saod.
Five or six church members will make the trip and they will be bringing an assortment of their familiar signs for use at the picket, including one that says “Your Pastor Is Lying,” that Phelps selected and will hold. The group plans to stand at a “respectable distance” from each church and sing hymns and parody songs that they have written over the years for roughly half an hour at each stop before walking to the next. Phelps said they have notified local law enforcement of their intentions.
Tampa Bay and central Florida have become a frequent stop for Westboro, with at least one member having roots in Temple Terrace. In 2012 police in riot gear formed a wall between the group and Occupy Tampa protesters near the Tampa Convention Center where the Republican National Convention was underway. More recently, as the city of Orlando mourned the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, members of the anti-LGBT group “protested” at the funeral of one of the victims, Christopher Andrew Leinonen. Counter-protesters wearing angel wings and singing Amazing Grace were successful in preventing funeral-goers from hearing or seeing them, however.
A similar tactic will be employed by LGBTQ-advocacy group Out and Loud Florida on Sunday. With help from supporters, they will form a “Wall of Love” near Hyde Park UMC at 8:30 a.m. Co-founder Aaron Muñoz said that the wall will be the same as the one Out and Loud forms every Friday night in Ybor City, where they protect LGBTQ patrons from hate speech coming from a group that is a mirror image of Westboro in substance and tactics. Phelps said the Ybor group is not associated with Westboro in any way despite their similarities. Giacomo Liberato, a college student and co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society – St. Petersburg (SDS), the primary organizers of last November’s “Not My President” march in St. Petersburg, will be among the protesters present Sunday.
“I’m going to fight back against hate groups coming into our communities. I’m going to support my community members of every color, ethnicity, immigration status, sexual and gender identity, age, and faith, and I’m going because there are lots of wonderful people in the Bay Area that are prepared to build up a wall of love,” Liberato said.
On Sunday, Westboro is scheduled to be at Sacred Heart Catholic from 8:20 a.m. to 8:55 a.m., Hyde Park UMC from 9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and First Baptist Church of Tampa from 10 a.m. to 10:40 a.m. As of Thursday night, Out and Loud Florida had more than 80 confirmations for their Wall of Love on their Facebook Event page, with three times that many noting that they are “interested” in attending.
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