A woman dressed as Chewbacca mingled with clergy members, students, bikers and gay rights activists Monday afternoon on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, and waited. The early crowd of a few dozen held signs that read, "Sorry I didn't have time to make a sign, I was too busy having gay sex" and "God hates figs." As it approached 2:30 p.m., one anxious man asked, "Where are these trolls?"
They waited for the arrival of the Westboro Baptist Church. Founded by Fred Phelps in 1955, the small congregation composed almost wholly of Phelps' family preaches a fire-and-brimstone interpretation of the Bible that far exceeds even the most fundamentalist interpretations. Specifically, Westboro members blame a rash of societal ailments, most notably war, for the country's increasing acceptance of homosexuality. That belief motivates Westboro to picket the funerals of fallen military veterans while carrying signs that read, "God hates fags."
Chewbacca and the others descended on MSU to greet the church, which was expected to protest the university's failure to prepare students, as the church says on its website, "for the final day of judgment." But when the Westboro representatives finally did pull up, the crowd was slow to notice.
That's in part because its delegation included all of three people.
Shirley Phelps-Roper was among the protesters. She wore a turquoise T-shirt with the website "GodHatesFags.Com" printed on the front, and hoisted a sign reading, "Death Penalty 4 Fags." Her 11-year-old son, Luke, held his own sign with the words "Fag sin" and the silhouettes of two men who appeared to be engaging in anal sex.
While Luke and Shirley's husband, Brent Roper, remained silent, the matriarch started to sing along with religious music playing on a portable radio near her feet. Alerted by the singing, a handful of counter-protesters finally trickled across the street to take a closer look. One of them was less than impressed by the church's lackluster turnout. "You call this a protest?" he asked.
At first, only a few people circled the family. The crowd, however, quickly swelled to hundreds. Many yelled at the family, "Go back to Kansas!" One Westboro opponent held up a charcoal drawing of two men embracing. Meanwhile, members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a national biker group that formed specifically to combat Westboro's protests, revved their motorcycle engines to further drown out the singing.
During a brief break from her singing, Phelps-Roper told a reporter that the scene didn't bother her. To the contrary, it was exactly the response Westboro hoped for.
"Our job is to warn the living," she said. "This is a doomed nation."
Since 1990, the family has conducted more than 51,000 protests like this, Phelps-Roper said. She's raised each of her 11 children on the picket line. Luke is the youngest.
Phelps-Roper is proud of her family's power to draw such attention, despite their relatively small numbers. On Monday, an estimated 1,500 peopleincluding those at MSU and at a separate appearance at Bozeman High Schoolcame out to counter-protest Westboro's presence. "They all came out for three little souls," Phelps-Roper said before adding, "and God's word."
While Westboro worked to cause a stir, gay-equality groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Montana Human Rights Network held separate rallies in the area. The Human Rights Network's Jamee Greer says that the allies aimed to foster understanding, rather than hate, with their gatherings.
"People were just so upset and so disgusted that Westboro had picked us," he says. "They felt like they had to do something."
In an effort to alleviate potential conflict and draw attention away from the church, the gay-equality groups arranged for a DJ to play in a separate area of the MSU campus. And when Westboro picketed Bozeman High, LGBT supporters several blocks away handed out 1,500 scoops of free ice cream in Cooper Park.
Greer stayed busy shepherding counter-protesters, but he wasn't too preoccupied to note the tenor of the church's rhetoric. Even for a seasoned organizer, he found it startling.
"I've seen some crazy things over the years, and I still felt pretty sick to my stomach when I saw the sign that said, 'Death Penalty 4 Fags,'" he says. "That, to me, was shocking."
Despite the rhetoric and attention, no violence erupted. And Greer, who's a Bozeman native, says that the church's angry messages were so disturbing that it actually galvanized the community, bringing together people who might not otherwise have allied themselves with the gay rights movement. In the end he sees the church's presence in Bozeman as responsible for fostering another victory on the road to equality.
"We really tried to view what happened over the last 36 hours as part of the broader LGBT movement," he says. "I'm just really proud of my hometown."