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Enthusiastic but well-mannered crowd greets Westboro in Clayton

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 6, 2012 - By the time a handful of demonstrators from Westboro Baptist Church showed up at Clayton High School Monday morning, they almost went unnoticed by the several hundred people who had shown up for what turned out to be a combination counter-demonstration and pep rally.

Not that there was ever much of a threat of a direct confrontation between the two groups.

Well before dawn, police closed off streets and herded the crowd onto one side of the field in front of the high school, then patrolled a buffer zone between them and the site set aside for the pickets, who were stopping off on their way from demonstrating at the Super Bowl in Indianapolis before going home to Topeka, Kan. (Westboro is an independent Baptist church known for its strong stance against homosexuality. Church members regularly stage protests at funerals of American military service members.)

So, other than the jeers that greeted Fred Phelps Jr. and his companions when they set up on the far end of the field with their usual signs -- "Mourn for your sins," "God hates you" -- they didn't draw much reaction.

Instead, the crowd was occupied with what organizers had said would not be so much of an answer to the Westboro visitors as it would be an affirmation of support for inclusion, tolerance and the view that all you need is love.

"Separation of church and hate," read one sign. "It gets better" and "Love > Hate," others proclaimed. A large rainbow flag was at the center of much of the action.

And there was a little whimsy thrown in.

"If God HATES us, why did he make us sooo cute," read one woman's sign. Said another:

"God hates fangs."

Then there were the people whose attention was more on the reporters who had shown up than it was on the proceedings at hand. As one sign put it: "I'm just here to get on T.V."

Westboro's website had said that in addition to the picketing at Clayton High School, they also planned to demonstrate at Fort Zumwalt East High School in St. Peters. But Phelps said they could not get that event together in time, so they just came straight to Clayton.

By contrast, those in charge of the Clayton High School event were well organized enough to have a disciplined but enthusiastic crowd, including not only students but members of the community and representatives from other groups and other schools.

They sang songs ranging from "We Shall Overcome" to "Amazing Grace" and "God Bless America." They sold silk-screened T-shirts and tote bags to raise money for tolerance. They greeted each other like long-lost friends and comrades united for a cause.

Responding to a question on their Facebook site about why they would rather have a large crowd draw attention to the Westboro pickets and not just ignore them, Sydney Wright, one of the leaders of the high school's Gay-Straight Alliance, replied that the event was designed to be more in favor of LGBT groups than it was to be against the visiting church demonstrators.

"The fact that the WBC is coming to our school," Wright wrote, "has given us the opportunity to plan a great, peaceful, event in which has brought together the Clayton community, other schools, as well as local organizations and churches -- reeling in more support for our cause, and fundamentally more proceeds going to organizations that the WBC doesn't support.

"We are making an actual difference by bringing in people from all over St. Louis and outside areas to come join us for a peaceful 'spread the love' event."

Chris Tennill, spokesman for the Clayton School District, said Clayton teachers plan to create lessons around the issues brought up by the pickets and the student group. "When you have teachers like we do," he said, "you use every opportunity to bring real-life experiences into the classroom."

When the bell rang to mark the start of classes, students dutifully left the demonstration and headed into school. Those who remained in the crowd cheered when the Westboro pickets left a few minutes later.

Before departing, Phelps, son of the founder of the church, said his group visits schools like this to make sure its point of view gets a hearing. "If you're going to be tolerant and inclusive," he said, "you have got to include the Bible in that."

Asked how he liked being so greatly outnumbered by the counter-event organized by the Clayton students, Phelps replied: "I love it." He added that they have been met by far larger opposition groups than what they encountered Monday morning, particularly in San Francisco, where he said police had hustle them into a paddy wagon to protect them.

But he wasn't worried about that happening Monday. "San Francisco," Phelps said, "is a little different than Clayton."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.