A notorious Christian fundamentalist church based in America has threatened to hold its first anti-gay rally in Britain to protest against a play about a homosexual student.
Followers of the Westboro Baptist Church, a virulently homophobic denomination which pickets the funerals of Aids victims and soldiers in the US with “God Hates Fags” billboards, have vowed to protest on Friday outside a sixth-form college in Basingstoke, which is putting on a performance of The Laramie Project.
The group yesterday claimed it had secretly dispatched followers to the UK to avoid being denied entry to the country under Britain’s anti-hate laws.
The play recreates the final days of Matthew Shepard, a gay student from Wyoming who was murdered by two homophobic thugs. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, which is predominantly populated by founder Fred Phelps and his immediate family, shot to international fame and widespread notoriety when they picketed Mr Shepard’s funeral in 1998, using the opportunity to promote their belief that homosexuals are destined for hell.
In recent years, the members have caused even wider outrage by protesting at the funerals of American servicemen and women, who the church claim have died because God is punishing the West for its acceptance of homosexuality.
If the protest goes ahead, it will be the first time that the globally reviled church has held protests outside North America. It will also place enormous pressure on the Government over whether the sect’s followers should be allowed into the country, or thrown out if they are already here.
Last week, the Home Office sparked a diplomatic row between Britain and Holland the Netherlands when it banned the controversial Dutch MP Geert Wilders from entering the UK because his anti-Islamic proclamations threatened public order.
Lesbian and gay groups have already promised to hold counter demonstrations if the protest goes ahead and some activists on internet forums have even suggested using force to expel Westboro followers from Basingstoke if necessary.
Jach Holroyde, a campaign director of the Queer Youth Network, which has vowed to hold a peaceful protest, said: “Allowing these people entry into the UK would send a very clear message to bigots – that this country tolerates hatred against people based on their sexuality or gender preference.”
Details of the church’s picket plans for Britain were made available on their GodHatesFags.com website. Speaking yesterday from the church’s headquarters in Topeka, Kansas, Shirley Phelps, the 51-year-old daughter of the founder, when asked why the group had decided to target Britain, said: “Y’all turned the world over to fags so you are coming back in body bags.”
Mrs Phelps added that this weekend her church would also be spreading their “God Hates America” message in Buffalo, New York, where a number of funerals for victims of the recent plane crash are being held.
Last night, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said the group were unlikely to make it to their protest. “In the past they have threatened to picket events in Britain but they never turned up,” he said. “They are such an absurd, fringe, fanatical group that it’s probably best to just ignore them.”
He added: “I don’t agree with Geert Wilders being banned by the Home Secretary, but since he was, logic and consistency would suggest that the Government should ban Phelps family members from entering the UK on the basis that they stir up hatred against lesbian and gay people.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Government opposes extremism in all its forms... that was the driving force behind tighter rules on exclusions for unacceptable behaviour that the Home Secretary announced in October last year.”
Matthew Shepard: Victim of a hate crime
Matthew Shepard was just 21 when his bloodied and beaten body was found tied to a fence post near the town of Laramie, Wyoming. His only crime was to be openly gay in conservative, smalltown America. His murder in 1998 at the hands of two local men, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, who singled Shepard out because he was gay, sparked a nationwide debate about homophobia in the US and jolted the gay community into the type of mass action that had not been seen since the Stonewall riots. They demanded hate-crime legislation that would protect the gay community. In 2007, the Matthew Shepard Act was finally passed, but it was vetoed by George Bush. President Barack Obama has said he will try to make the Act law.