The City of Williamsburg became part of a nation-wide debate Saturday when members of the extremist Westboro Baptist Church protested the memorial service of 1st Lt. Todd Weaver ’08, who was killed Sept. 9 in Afghanistan.
The ceremony at Williamsburg Community Chapel turned an adjacent patch of Route 5 into contested ground, where the protesting members of the WBC faced a counter-demonstration staged by more than 100 College of William and Mary students, Williamsburg community members and veterans.
“I’m here to show support for the family of Lt. Weaver,” Kirkland Broadwell ’14 said. “He was part of the William and Mary family, and he gave his life for our country.”
Weaver, who was killed from wounds inflicted by an improvised explosive device, had served a 10-month deployment in Iraq in 2004 before enrolling at the College. He was commissioned into the U.S. Army in 2008 through the College’s ROTC program after graduating with a degree in government.
The WBC is a fundamentalist institution located in Topeka, Kan. that sends its members to picket hundreds of funerals of servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The church attributes the soldiers’ deaths to divine retribution for what they consider the nation’s sins of divorce, homosexuality, abortion and promiscuity. Three WBC church members were staked out several hundred yards from the Williamsburg Community Chapel near the entrance to Jamestown High School by 1 p.m. in anticipation of the 1:15 p.m. service.
With signs declaring “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Cursed America,” and t-shirts advertising their church’s website, the WBC protestors sang provocative parodies of “The Army Goes Rolling Along” and Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” They were surrounded by members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcyclist war veterans committed to shielding mourning families from protestors. Both groups waved American flags.
“We’re here to honor our fallen brother and protect his family,” Marcus Varnell, a Patriot Guard Rider, said. He had no comment about the WBC members.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of WBC founder Fred Phelps, was among the protestors present.
“This nation’s destruction is imminent,” she said. “This damned American theater is on fire — run! Patriotic pep rallies at these funerals [are not] going to help us one iota.”
Phelps-Roper was dismissive of the students’ and community members’ counter-demonstration.
“The truth is so painful they have to make noise to drown it out,” she said. “Their God has no power — our God is kicking their ass.”
Her daughter, Megan Phelps-Roper, explained their motivation for protesting the memorial service.
“We’re here to deliver a message that this nation has made God its number one enemy, and that’s why this 26-year old man was cut off before his life started,” she said. “Curses like that are pouring out over this nation every day.”
The younger Phelps-Roper said Weaver’s death was a sign of God’s displeasure with America’s tolerance of divorce, homosexuality, premarital sex and abortion.
“There is the push for fag marriage in this country,” she said. “You’re a freak if you’re not fornicating by the time you’re 14.”
Phelps-Roper said that rather than being disrespectful of Weaver’s family, she and the other protesters were reaching out to them by encouraging them to repent.
“These words of truth [are] the only loving thing we can do for this family,” she said.
Across the street, students and residents sang patriotic hymns and carried signs with messages supportive of the U.S. military.
“God preaches love, and we’re showing our love for his family and Todd Weaver,” Broadwell said.
He and several other College students wore “God is love” t-shirts donated by the owner of Williamsburg Grafix. Some students present had been mobilized by the Facebook group “Peace for Lt. Weaver’s Family,” created by Abhi Goyal ’13.
“I’m glad that as many people came out as they did, and that the community shows they do not support the message Westboro is bringing,” Goyal said.
Several members of the Lesbian and Gay Law Association at the William and Mary Law School were also in attendance. They were drawn to the demonstration, they said, partially out of curiosity.
“When I was growing up, [WBC] used to protest funerals of gay people, like Matthew Shephard,” Mary Rude J.D. ’11, president of the LGLA, said. “I’m a big believer in free speech, and counter speech. I am proud to see Williamsburg’s turnout, rejecting the message of hate.”
The extent of WBC members’ rights to free speech is a topic of contention and the subject of a lawsuit that will come before the Supreme Court Oct. 6. According to James City County Police Lt. Greg LaRose, the officers stationed throughout the site were present to protect everyone’s First Amendment rights. In its Sept. 19 press release announcing the protest, the WBC stated that “Lt. Weaver gave his life for the Constitutional right of the WBC to warn America.”
Just before 2 p.m., the WBC members packed up their signs and drove away as the counter-demonstrators cheered and booed. The crowd sang a verse of “God Bless America,” then began to disperse. Ten minutes later, only the police and a few students remained.
“That went as well as it could have, I think,” Goyal said. “It’s true we came just because we heard they were coming, but that doesn’t mean we have to leave just because they are gone.”