Rallies at Heritage High draw hundreds

Locals preaching tolerance vastly outnumber radical Kansas group

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A raucous, rainbow-hued wall of humanity rallied in front of Heritage High School on Tuesday to counter the fierce anti-gay message of the Topeka, Kan., Westboro Baptist Church.

The half-hour encounter, which began just as the school day ended, remained civil under the watchful eye of a few dozen law officers.

It surely was not peaceful.

Under a steady light rain, the sign-waving, T-shirt wearing, flag-toting crowd of perhaps 400 or 500 persons showered the seven Westboro pickets with hoots of laughter and derision, a few strains of gospel and even several bars of the Queen hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Their dominant message: Love prevails over hate.

Whether shouted, sung or stamped onto clothing or cardboard, the words easily masked whatever the Westboro group sang or yelled from the opposite sidewalk, some 70 feet distant.

That said, most all who gathered claimed some measure of success.

“The strongest force in the universe is love. So, when the hate comes, we throw some love at ’em and usually the hate crumbles pretty quick,” said Jennifer Lanier, 51, of Vancouver.

Making use of a white bedsheet and some PVC pipe, Lanier joined other winged protesters in a spirited “Action Angel” brigade. They included her partner, Dustina Haase-Lanier, 33.

Lanier came to support all 2,200 current Heritage students, including Gay-Straight Alliance members, she said. She recalled her own straight-laced high school in Greensboro, N.C., where “there wasn’t support for kids who were different, at all.

“None of these kids at Heritage need to get this junk thrown at them,” Lanier said.

School pride

In truth, nothing was tossed across Northeast 130th Avenue, which Clark County Sheriff’s deputies shut down for nearly an hour shortly before 2 p.m.

More officers and school staff blocked the front doors while students were steered out side doors and off campus by bus or via secondary driveways.

About 600 Heritage students, more than 25 percent, were absent on Tuesday, said an Evergreen district spokeswoman.

Dozens of students, past and present, were eager to join the show of unity outside, however.

“It’s a shower of love!” shouted Kelli McClary, 24, a 2004 Heritage graduate who lives nearby, as the precipitation picked up. Her sign read, “Christians against bigotry.”

“I still love the school. The students and teachers are great,” McClary said. A classmate came out during his senior year, “and instead of beating up on him, people supported him. And I loved them for that,” she said.

Carly Ford, 19, a 2009 graduate, was pleasantly surprised by the protest she learned about on Facebook, as did many others.

“Heritage is definitely making a point,” she said.

Several who gathered wore T-shirts that read “Rebellious brat,” brainchild of sophomore student Cody Conway, 16. He printed them in reply to Westboro’s online message that labeled the students as such. Sales were brisk at $5 each, he said.

“I don’t think it’s right,” Conway said of the roving Westboro campaign, most notable for rallies at military funerals to claim U.S. soldiers killed in action are God’s revenge for tolerance of homosexuality.

“Let kids decide their (lives). Let them be,” Conway said. “It’s their choice.”

Kansas contingent

Five males and two women emerged from the silver Ford Expedition SUV with Oregon plates that arrived a few minutes past 2 p.m.

They donned bright headbands, then hoisted placards and one large, upside-down U.S. flag, forming a row behind plastic barricades.

Jael Phelps, 25, blonde Kansas granddaughter of Westboro pastor Fred Phelps, waved three signs and wore a smeary U.S. flag skirt.

She claimed success Tuesday in spreading the word that America’s “pride and arrogance” in flouting God’s law will bring its downfall.

“We accomplished what we set out to do, even before we set foot (here),” Phelps said over protesters’ loud shouts. “If there’s anybody on the fence before, they’re not, now.”

Across the street, Sean Fosdick, 41, of Cascade Park scoffed at her claim. Wearing a gray U.S. Marine Corps sweatshirt, the former lance corporal silently held a large American flag.

“No, they are not accomplishing anything,” Fosdick said.

He abhors the church targeting a public school and finds its military funeral rallies repugnant, he said. But he believes the Westboro visit, among several scheduled in the metro area, including a stop at Portland’s Grant High School on Thursday, had only backfired.

“This is just another experience where people who hate bring our country together, and I love it,” Fosdick said, citing the terror attacks of 9/11 and U.S. resolve. “Seeing the people out here, gays, lesbians and other people standing together, that’s why I’m here.”

Other rallies

Pro-diversity forces also rallied far from Heritage, heeding the request of Evergreen school officials.

More than 100 people met on the lawn of the YWCA Clark County community office in Shumway for a midday, nondenominational show of support for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.

Kathy Kniep, local YWCA executive director, joined church and civic leaders to praise families and others who side with minorities against discrimination “motivated by hate,” she said.

Among officials on hand were Clark County Superior Court Judge John Wulle and county Auditor Greg Kimsey.

“(We’re here) to let people know that is not who we are,” Kniep said. “Thank you for standing up for the inclusion and dignity of our fellow citizens. This is what we want our community to be about.”

Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker of the Congregation Kol Ami, said the Westboro pickets are typical bullying, based on fear.

“They’re afraid … afraid of all the beauty and possibilities that exist in the human race,” Dunsker said. “When we show hatred to other people, we deny the divinity that’s in each one of us.

“The minute God’s name comes up for hatred? They’re wrong, they’re just wrong,” she said.

Talking tolerance

After classes ended at Union High School, about 20 students held a “Meeting of Tolerance” fashioned by freshman student Jacob Nierenberg.

He enlisted teacher Mina Pollmann, advisor to a student Service for Peace Club, to raise discussion of tolerance inside and outside the classroom.

Among 10 adults to attend were Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, Principal Brian Grimsted and Associate Principal Dave Morris. Leavitt called “intolerance against our brethren un-American,” while Morris said, “we can fix ignorance through education,” Nierenberg said.

One pair of Union students said they couldn’t resist rushing to Orchards to check out the main event.

“The more I thought about it, I couldn’t just leave the Heritage kids alone. There’s a lot more schools in this (effort),” said Andrew Forrest, 15, a Union freshman.

The large, youthful turnout heartened one veteran of social change who praised the hundreds who “just kept coming and coming,” he said.

It was “thrilling” to see so many young people, said 49th District state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver. The openly gay legislator held a large sign that said, “Love, love, love.”

“It’s not going to be about us,” Moeller said of his Baby Boomer contemporaries. “It’s going to be about them.”

He called the loud protest “very appropriate. You can’t give evil a stage without showing up. There’s no compromise,” he said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.