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Quick and Dirty

God Is Hate

Fundamentalist Group Plans to Picket Baltimore School for the Arts' Production of The Laramie Project

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 12/6/2006

The Westboro Baptist Church is coming to Baltimore. On Dec. 8 and 9 a handful of protesters from the Topeka, Kan., church will be outside the Baltimore School for the Arts on Cathedral Street in Mount Vernon to picket the school's production of the play The Laramie Project.

The church is infamous for its anti-gay rhetoric (it operates a web site called www.godhatesfags.com) and it protests at the funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq. According to the church's attorney, Shirley Phelps-Roper, Westboro Baptist protests the funerals because they want people to make the connection that the war "is where God is dealing with this nation for their rebellion against him." Such rebellion, she says, includes putting on productions of The Laramie Project, which is based on the murder of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming man who was killed in 1998 for being gay. Phelps-Roper says of the play: "It's got only one goal, and that's to promote a perverse manner of life."

Of course, the students and teachers at Baltimore School for the Arts see the play for what it was intended--as a tool to teach about the dangers of prejudice and hatred in society.

"I think it's a piece about tolerance and forgiveness," says Donald Hicken, head of the school's theater department. "I don't think it's a piece about gay or anti-gay, though it says a lot of things about that and about hate crimes. But I think the primary reason for [us] doing it is because it has some very important things to say."

When told that the Westboro Baptist Church was planning to protest outside the School for the Arts during the play's Dec. 8 and 9 performances, Hicken says his primary concern is that "they not be in any way disruptive to our patrons, and certainly to any of the students at the school or people participating in the production." He says security presence at the school will be beefed up in anticipation of the protest, just in case.

"They have a right to protest peacefully," he says, noting that anyone who chooses to do so "has a right to counterprotest" as well.

Hicken says even before the school was aware that a protest was planned during the play's production his students were familiar with the Westboro Baptist Church. As part of their preparation for doing the play, productions of which have been known to draw protests from the church's followers, the students did their homework.

"We've been to their web site," he says. "So the kids know what they are about." (Erin Sullivan)

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