Gay-bashing church plans picketing at Heritage High

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Members of the gay-bashing Westboro Baptist Church are scheduled to picket outside Heritage High School after classes on June 1.

No one’s sure why the Orchards school was singled out for a 30-minute demonstration, which would be the notorious group’s first in Clark County.

An inquiry from The Columbian to the Topeka, Kan.-based church remained unanswered by Thursday evening.

But the visit would cap a string of Portland-area events that bridge the Memorial Day weekend, listed on the group’s website.

Starting May 28, the group plans to picket five Jewish synagogues and centers; a Catholic church; a Bible church; and the large New Hope Community Church near Clackamas, Ore.

Early June 1, the group will picket Portland’s Grant High School before the first bell, the website shows.

That same day, it will gather at Heritage from 2:15 to 2:45 p.m., chiefly “to picket the rebellious brats and lying teachers,” the website explains.

Just why Heritage, exactly?

“We really don’t know why we’re being targeted,” said Carol Fenstermacher, Evergreen Public Schools spokeswoman.

The church is best known for demonstrating at military funerals, believing that every war death is God’s punishment for the United States’ tolerance of homosexuality. That has provoked enough furor that the U.S. Supreme Court in March agreed to consider a test case on funeral privacy rights.

Heritage students had not yet been informed Thursday of the protest, Fenstermacher said.

Evergreen’s anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies would ban the demonstrators from the school campus, just off Northeast 130th Avenue, she said. About 1,700 students attend Heritage.

Word of the demonstration first came Monday morning to the sheriff’s office. Attorneys for the Phelps family in Topeka (Fred Phelps is the Westboro church leader) faxed a message to Sheriff Garry Lucas and Cmdr. Chuck Atkins.

The letter lays out the group’s plan and its “peaceful and law-abiding manner.” It spells out expectations that police provide a safe environment, including a “dead zone” to buffer the group from possible threats.

A 33-year department veteran, Atkins is former head of special operations and is now central precinct leader, on whose turf Heritage sits, he said.

Westboro is correct that deputies owe a peaceable means to demonstrate, he said.

“Wholeheartedly, I agree it is our responsibility to let them do what they’re legally allowed to do,” Atkins said. “We take a neutral stance. As long as they don’t impede traffic, driveways, foot traffic, etc.,” he said.

Atkins said he informed the deputy who serves as Heritage school resource officer, who in turn alerted Evergreen. He will soon begin planning strategy, teaming with school and Oregon authorities.

He hopes to meet with a Westboro representative to firm up a proper response.

Fenstermacher said Evergreen will rely on the Sheriff’s Office to coordinate and handle the event and any problems.

“Our main concern is making sure our buses are going in and out (smoothly),” she said. Safety of students who drive or walk also is a priority, she said.

Atkins, too, is baffled by the Heritage protest. He knew that 2003 Heritage graduate and U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kane M. Funke, 20, was killed in Iraq in August 2004.

“I can make assumptions …but I’m just guessing,” he said.

There also was brief uproar in March 2007 over students who met mornings to pray inside the Heritage commons. That may have placed the school on ultra-conservatives’ maps.

The conflict was defused when students agreed to gather outside the school instead, and has not resurfaced, Fenstermacher said. But Evergreen did hear from The Liberty Counsel, legal arm for the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University in southern Virginia, which had vowed to mount a legal battle.

Westboro has picketed in and around Portland before (including Grant High), and in Washington state, drawing counter-protesters at each stop.

Evergreen leaders just wish church members weren’t coming to their doorstep, this time.

“They need to stay away from our kids. It just makes me sick,” said Victoria Bradford, school board president.

“It’s a shame that they would ever put fear into our students, because to me, that’s fearful behavior,” she said. “We just want our kids to feel safe in school.”

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