A Topeka church that has gained notoriety in recent years for picketing the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers was itself picketed after turning a group of veterans and their families away from its noon worship service Sunday.
Veteran Jerry Bacidore and 15 supporters traveled to Topeka from across Illinois to attend a service at Westboro Baptist Church.
They had planned to stand at the back of the church dressed in black, silently representing soldiers who have been killed, Bacidore said in a letter published last week in the Topeka Capital-Journal.
At the last minute, church officials told the veterans group that they were not welcome to attend, so the group picketed nearby.
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Westboro members — most of whom are related to church patriarch Fred Phelps Sr. —are best known for protesting at military funerals to express the belief that U.S. troop deaths are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
Laura Cordell of Peoria, Ill., said the group had contacted Phelps' daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, by phone and e-mail informing her that they would be attending a service, and she welcomed them. Phelps-Roper confirmed Sunday that she had given Bacidore permission to attend.
"Anyone is welcome to sit in the pew and listen," Phelps-Roper wrote in an e-mail to Bacidore. "Anyone is free and within the bounds of the law to protest out on a public right of way."
Group members arrived in Topeka at 5 a.m., ate breakfast, changed into their church clothes and gathered in front of the church at 11 a.m. That's when they were turned away.
"We were told that the public service had been canceled, and that they had a private service that we were not allowed to enter," Bacidore said.
Although her church churns out hundreds of e-mails telling media outlets where Westboro members will be protesting, Phelps-Roper objected to Bacidore's letter to the newspaper. She said it showed the group's "contempt for the church's religious service."
"When you come into the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, you sit in the pews. You're not welcome to make a scene," she said.
She said the time of the Sunday service was changed to accommodate members who had to leave for West Virginia to picket a memorial service for 29 people who died in a coal mining accident.
Phelps-Roper said she advises all visitors to call her cell phone to verify times because the group's picketing schedule can affect when services are conducted.
The Illinois veterans group assembled at a nearby intersection, where members waved American flags and held up large signs with patriotic slogans such as "We defended freedom, let our fallen rest in peace." Several drivers honked in support.
"They impose themselves on sacred events, such as funerals, but when you come to them, they rear their ugly head," Cordell said. "They are playing games. It's obvious they are not a church. We hate to call them a church, and we want to strip them of that title."