Westboro has new, pro-gay neighbor

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Aaron Jackson got his colorful idea while stalking the Westboro Baptist Church on Google.

The 31-year-old activist wanted to see what the church looked like. For years, Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro protesters have been picketing soldiers' funerals with anti-gay messages. Jackson, who runs a global orphanage and anti-poverty nonprofit, was seized by curiosity.

He panned the camera around on Google Earth to get a ground-level view of the neighborhood and saw a house for sale across the street. "Oh, no way," Jackson recalled in a phone interview. "That's too good to be true."

Jackson didn't end up buying that Topeka house. But after some haggling with a local homeowner, he bought the one next to it and moved in three months ago. And on Tuesday, he hired a Navy veteran to paint the house like a rainbow -- the symbol of gay pride and equality, and a thumb in the eye of the Westboro Baptist Church.

The home at 1200 Southwest Orleans St., appraised at $88,320, is an ordinary house in an extraordinary neighborhood. ("The ZIP code, believe it or not, is 66604," Jackson said, delighting in the irony that the first three digits are associated with the devil.)

As the building now dubbed the "Equality House" began its transformation from a home to a protest symbol, Topekans stopped to smile at the playful but resonant jab at the church, whose demonstrations have tested the limits of patience and free speech. Even the Supreme Court has weighed in, finding in 2011 that Westboro's protests, though "certainly hurtful," were protected as free speech by the First Amendment.

Mike McKessor of Kansas City, Mo., whom Jackson hired to paint the house, wondered if other painters were scared to take on a job that is more of a statement against a church known for its politics.

"I'm a veteran, too, and those guys mess with veterans, not just the gay people. They mess with everybody," said McKessor, who says he spent four years in the Navy in the 1980s.

But when the painting began Tuesday, the neighborhood immediately brightened up, so to speak. Three women driving by stopped their car, got out and started to dance, McKessor said.

"Every neighbor that I encountered was so happy, and everybody was smiling when they go by," McKessor said with a chuckle. "It was on a busy street, and everybody slowed down and took pictures. I'm not exaggerating. Dang near every car stopped and said, 'Good job! Good job!' I've never had people so happy for painting a house."

He also liked what Jackson planned to do with the place. "Any time anybody's going to help people, I'm willing to help, so I said, 'Sure, let's do it,' " McKessor said.

Jackson, who's from Destin, Fla., is a co-founder of Planting Peace, which undertakes a variety of initiatives around the world, including environmental projects. Planting Peace is registered as a nonprofit under the title Awake Inc.

Jackson said he had been waiting for the weather to get warmer before starting the paint job.

"I always wanted to get into equality (work) and just haven't," Jackson said. Moved by statistics about high suicide rates among gay teens, he decided the house would be a perfect launching pad for a new anti-bullying initiative.

Targeting the Westboro Baptist Church, at least symbolically, seemed like a good place to start, Jackson said.

"It's not like they're pumping millions of dollars into marriage campaigns, but they are the poster child of hate, you know, especially for the gay community," he said.

The Westboro Baptist Church responded to the new house with fervor.

"We thank God for the Sodomite Rainbow House!" the church said in a written statement. "Think about it! This is not a novel idea -- there are hundreds of similarly painted houses around the world -- the ONLY reason why this one is a story is because of WHERE it is!"

The church's theology holds that supporting homosexuality means damnation in hell.

"It's not OK to be gay, it never was OK to be gay, and it never will be OK to be gay," the Westboro statement continued. "The Sodomite Rainbow House is another instance where someone has declared their sin as Sodom -- and it shines a huge spotlight on our message -- you can paint rainbows on every house in America, and homosexuality will still be an abominable sin in the eyes of God."