Drivers honked and shouted, but that was about the extent of the reaction to protests in Gainesville Sunday morning from a religious group known for its anti-gay rhetoric and demonstrations against slain U.S. soldiers at funerals.
A heavy police presence kept the Feb. 3 Westboro Baptist Church demonstration peaceful as Westboro members waved signs bearing such messages as “Divorce, remarriage & same-sex ‘marriage’ are all sin” and “God hates workers of iniquity.”
The group protested at First Baptist Church of Gainesville, St. John Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church, St. Michael Roman Catholic Church, Grace Episcopal Church and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.
They were divided into two teams, with each group consisting of 10 or fewer protestors.
Counterprotesters showed up in much larger numbers, as many as 50 at several of the churches. They flashed signs reading “God is love” and “Jesus didn’t stutter when he said love one another.”
Each group played music, sang or chanted, but they never exchanged words with each other. Police kept the groups separated, largely behind barricades, and they blocked off lanes in front of the churches, keeping motorists at bay.
For the Westboro group, the protests served mainly as a warmup for a much bigger event, Super Bowl LIII, being played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Westboro protests every Super Bowl, which they declare as “idol worship.”
“We generally go to a town with churches that we have not picketed yet,” said Margie Phelps, one of the protesters. “The churches used to preach against sin. Now they teach sin. It’s ground zero where sin has gotten a grip on this nation.”
For Gainesville’s Jordan Dorsey, Westboro’s protests hit home.
“They picketed the funeral of a good friend of mine who passed away when we were in Afghanistan,” said Dorsey, a former Army soldier. “I was stuck in Afghanistan and couldn’t really do anything about it, so now is my opportunity to show my solidarity with Gainesville churches, soldiers and everybody that Westboro stands against.”
Bells rang from Grace Episcopal Church, drowning out the sounds of both Westboro Baptist Church picketers and counterprotesters.
“We always ring them before the service, so we’re just ringing them a little more this morning,” the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham of Grace Episcopal said.
The bells persistently rang until stopping at the last second of the protest.
Jonathan Phelps, one of the Westboro Baptist picketers, said his group intentionally chose Grace Episcopal for its denomination’s “oppression of the truth.”
“In the history of America, there has never been a more evil institution,” he said.
The event drew some spectators, including Bernadette Jacob, a St. Michael Catholic Church member.
“This is very interesting,” she said. “I never did expect to see this in this town.”