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Monday, March 04, 2024

The distance that separated the protesters spanned three lanes of traffic on University Avenue.

But for Shirley Phelps-Roper, it was the distance between heaven and hell.

Phelps-Roper, the daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church pastor, was one of about 10 members from the church who came to Gainesville to spread one message: God hates.

Insults flew like speeding cars, signs projected messages of humor and hate, and costumed protesters danced to an eclectic mix blaring from boom boxes.

At the four-stop protest Sunday, hundreds of counter-protesters outnumbered the members from the Kansas church, which has gained national notoriety for its Web site,

Lou Bouton, a 51-year-old former drag queen from Gainesville, was among the counter-protesters who demonstrated against the church.

“I have nothing better to do, so I like to come out here and be an annoyance,” he said.

But for some Gainesville residents, the real annoyance was the radical church, which has made national headlines for its controversial stances on homosexuality, Jews, Catholics, Muslims and African-Americans, among others.

Westboro Baptist Church began its Gainesville tour at the Trinity United Methodist Church, followed by a stop at the UF Hillel. They then went across town to Queen of Peace Catholic Church before rounding out the day at St. Augustine Catholic Church.

Phelps-Roper, whose father, Fred, is the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, said the city is made up of rebels against God who are sprinting toward destruction.

“Your university is a beacon of disobedience that shines forth from this nation,” she said. “[God] gave you that fag of a mayor because you’re thankless.”

Phelps-Roper was referring to Mayor-elect Craig Lowe, who briefly addressed a counter-protest at the Bo Diddley Community Plaza downtown while members of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed at UF.

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At the counter-protest, which was called Love Conquers Hate: A Rally for Human Rights, Lowe spoke about ways gay and lesbian  rights can be expanded in Florida.

“Let’s commit together so that in Gainesville, Florida, love will conquer all,” he said.

Lowe wasn't the only public figure speaking out against the Kansas church.

Former mayoral candidate Don Marsh picketed alongside the counter-protesters at the Trinity United Methodist Church protest.

Carrying signs that said, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” and “Prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you,” Marsh made it clear that the church did not represent his viewpoints.

“These are not my people,” he said.

But Wayne Sapp, a pastor with the Dove World Outreach Center stood with members of his congregation alongside the Westboro Baptist Church members at Trinity United Methodist Church.

Sapp's group and Westboro Baptist members sang songs such as “This Land is Going Straight to Hell” and “I’m Ashamed to Be an American,” to the tune of “This Land is Your Land” and “I’m Proud to Be an American” respectively.

According to Sapp, the Westboro Baptist Church teaches the whole Bible.

“Churches like to talk about love and acceptance, but they forget to talk about rebuke and correction,” Sapp said. “The world has rejected God. Now God is rejecting the world.”

Despite the singing and chanting, both sides remained civil.

“It’s the most peaceful protest I’ve ever seen,” said Lt. Stan Perry of the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.

The tranquil mood turned more spirited once the protesters left Trinity United Methodist Church and drove to the UF Hillel, where the church members were surrounded by a swarm of costumed individuals who danced, sang and carried signs with messages such as “God hates hats,” “This is a sign,” “Drink the Kool-Aid” and “Fred Phelps is Mah Baby Daddy.”

“The Song that Never Ends” was the longest-lasting song sung by the counter-protesters, who also  chanted as they marched in circles in front of the Kansas church members.

“We’re here to steal [Westboro’s] thunder and celebrate life,” said Thomas Baker, a UF aerospace engineering senior who was dressed as a merman.

Amid the absurdity, tensions rose when one Jewish student confronted Phelps-Roper.

“You’re a lying son of a bitch,” Phelps-Roper told the student. “You know God is going to cause the nations to march on Jerusalem, and your women are going to be ravished.”

Jewish students joined the counter-protesters at the UF Hillel, which was decorated with blue and white balloons in celebration of Israel’s Independence Day.

“I’m so happy so many [counter-protesters] came by,” said UF mechanical engineering senior Josh Greer, who is Jewish. “[Westboro Baptist Church] doesn’t even believe that these people have a right to exist. It’s unfathomable.”

Katrina Bryant, a 6-year-old who attended the Hillel protest with her mother, said Westboro Baptist Church does not represent the image of God she believes in.

Although she is just learning to read, she knew that the messages on the church’s signs were not those of her own.

“I wanted to show that God loves,” she said. “God is a really, really good person.”

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