By David Saleh Rauf and Alexandra Wilding
COLLEGE PARK – A Kansas church known for its vehement anti-homosexual stance and for picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers is targeting a Hyattsville high school for a protest next week.
A small cohort from the Westboro Baptist Church is planning to demonstrate outside Northwestern High School on Tuesday to voice objections over what it describes as a “pervert-run” school.
The church did not cite a specific issue with Northwestern but said teachers across the country have “broken the moral compass of this generation.”
“These students are sitting in these high schools and actively together are rebelling against God and his commandments,” said Shirley Phelps-Roper, a spokeswoman and daughter of the church’s founder. “It’s the same everywhere. You seen one, you seen them all.”
Prince George’s County Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. defended the school, saying the district does not support the planned demonstration.
“Our school district … is committed to supporting all of the students in our diverse population,” Hite said in a statement.
Prince George’s County School Board member Rosalind Johnson had stronger words for the church.
“I am appalled,” she said. “I can’t imagine someone claiming to be a member of a Christian church and truly perverting the word of God.”
The planned picket in Hyattsville comes as the U.S. Supreme Court returns from its winter recess. The Topeka, Kan.-based church is at the center of a Supreme Court case that stems from a protest in which church members picketed the funeral of a slain Marine from Carroll County. The father of the Marine sued, but a federal appeals court ruled church members were protected by the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in October and will decide if the First Amendment protects protesters at funerals from liability for intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the family of the deceased.
Church members frequently travel across the country to protest gay rights and the Jewish faith. The protests can ignite strong emotions, as church members generally scream slurs at passers-by and display signs with controversial slogans like “God Hates America” and “God Hates F–s.”
About seven church members are expected to picket Tuesday across the street from the entrance of the school’s main parking lot, Phelps-Roper said.
In response, Hyattsville Police are planning to beef up security around the school and are developing a contingency plan “in case things go bad,” said Sgt. Chris Purvis.
The church is planning a separate protest in Washington Tuesday morning. Phelps-Roper said the church chose Northwestern, a school of roughly 2,500 students that claims Muppets creator Jim Henson as an alumnus, because it is in the general area, which she said is densely populated with military families.
In a news release, however, the church described Northwestern as a “F– infested, pervert-run” school.
The church was founded by Fred Phelps, who ran a street ministry in the 1950s that crusaded against people making out in public, said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and has followed the church for years.
Phelps first drew national attention in 1998 when he picketed the funeral of slain University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was targeted because he was gay.
Since then, Phelps has used funerals as his “signature protest,” Potok said.
“This is a guy who will do anything to get publicity,” he said.