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SALT LAKE CITY — The Westboro Baptist Church — a Kansas-based congregation synonymous with controversy and notorious for protesting military funerals with signs proclaiming God hates homosexuals — ended a weekend of protests in Utah with an early Monday morning demonstration outside of West High School.
Why? According to one Westboro congregant, "to tell (students) the truth for the first time in their lives."
The church is widely described as a hate group and is headed by Fred Phelps and consists mostly of members of his family.
The church is headquartered in Topeka Kansas and held its first public service on Nov. 27, 1955.
"Our purpose for being here is to tell these children going to this high school that their parents, teachers, preachers, politicians, leaders, have been lying to them when they told them two things from their birth and that is that it's OK to be gay and God loves everybody," said Rachel hockenbarger of Topeka, Kan.
A number of Westboro congregants gathered on the southeast corner of 300 West and North Temple around 7 a.m. and were met on all three sides by other groups there to counter their message.
Most of the opposing groups were advocating gay rights. Alex Bowman, a West High graduate and member of Salt Lake's "queer community," said they had been told those from the church were there to oppose efforts by West High students to create a "queer-straight" alliance.
"We want to show our community is stronger than their community," she said.
The entire event was over by 7:30 a.m. Shelby Lott, a "big supporter of gay rights" who heard about the event on Facebook, said she thinks the group may have accomplished what it came for at that point.
"They left really fast," she said. "They waited for the news coverage and were gone."
I guess Westboro Baptist Church baffles me as to how someone can hate someone so much.
–- Shelby Lott
Lott said those assembled on both sides were "pretty diverse" and said she attends many of these protests as a sort of hobby and to make a statement.
"I guess Westboro Baptist Church baffles me as to how someone can hate someone so much," Lott said. "We're not going to stop. There needs to be somebody to tell them this isn't to be tolerated."
She said the presence of the church was the "talk of the town" within her social circles, but the group packed it in when the various pro-gay rights groups began to approach those on the Westboro corner.
Despite the buildup, she noted the brevity of the event.
"You could have blinked and you would have missed it."
Though there were a number of rainbow banners, Ken DeVries, assistant principal at West, said he didn't think the protest had anything to do with a potential gay-straight alliance at the school.
"I don't think they know who we are," he said. "I think it's a case of West High being close to other locations. But we are one of the most diverse, accepting groups in Utah."
He said students were made aware of the protest and advised not to engage.
"We were concerned that kids would get emotional and do something they didn't want to do," DeVries said. "What we wanted to do was make this a positive, learning experience for the kids; we live in a democracy, have First Amendment rights, however the hateful message isn't appropriate."
The group flew out almost immediately after the protest ended, following a long weekend protesting at other schools and churches in the Salt Lake and Park City areas.
Matthew Gallagher, a senior from Park City High School, was at the West High protest and said he "totally disagrees" with the group's message. He said he didn't understand how the group could "thank God for dead soldiers" when those are the people protecting their rights to free speech.
"It's a disgrace," he said.
Gallagher said one member told him they chose West as "another high school to spread the word," but they may have targeted West because of the school's minority and refugee populations, but wasn't certain.
"They're crazy," he said. "Who knows?"