(Editor’s note: Some readers have reported difficulty viewing the Tribune videos embedded in this blog. As a courtesy I uploaded a YouTube version as well as the complete story from Monday’s demonstration. Please visit GFTrib.com for more great news videos from around Montana. )
BOZEMAN – A handful of sign-waving acolytes of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church did not find a receptive audience on the campus of Montana State University in Bozeman on Monday afternoon.
Hundreds of people from across Montana’s vast geographical, political and social spectrum descended upon the controversial demonstrators to counter the group’s message that God is punishing the United States for tolerating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.
Westboro Baptist Church is famous for picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers with messages such as “Thank God for IEDs.” More recently they made headlines by claiming the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was God’s work.
The church, which has been widely condemned by religious leaders, veterans groups and human rights groups for more than a decade, announced earlier this year that it planned to picket MSU and Bozeman High School.
Approximately five Westboro demonstrators stood on a corner across from Veterans Memorial Park holding signs. However, the demonstrators and their signs were barely visible through the throngs of counter-demonstrators who quickly surrounded and obstructed the view of the Westboro picketers.
Robbie Regennitter of Great Falls was with a group called Patriot Guard Riders. The Patriot Guard Riders travel to Westboro demonstrations around the United States to show support for America and to denounce hate.
“I don’t think anybody needs to be preaching hate,” Reggennitter said. “There’s enough hate in the world already.”
A group of motorcyclists from the Patriot Guard Riders and a pair of men in a muscle car did laps in front of the Westboro picketers, revving their loud engines and drawing huge cheers from the raucous crowd.
Many counter-demonstrators and those gathered at a nearby anti-hate rally just a few hundred yards away on the campus grounds wore T-shirts and held signs denouncing Westboro’s message.
MSU Junior Matt Morris of Greeley, Colo., donned a homemade T-shirt that read “I’m a Christian and God Loves this Campus.”
Morris said Westboro’s teachings run counter to true Christian principles.
“I came out here today to support a positive image of Christians,” Morris said.
The anti-hate rally drew even more people than the anti-Westboro picketers as hundreds gathered to hear speakers talk about equality, acceptance and dignity for the LGBT community.
Event organizer Jamee Greer of the Montana Human Rights Network said Westboro’s unwanted presence created an opportunity to have a conversation about the broader movement for equality for LGBT Montanans.
Greer said Montanans sometimes lose sight of the fact that unlike other parts of the country where the LGBT community enjoys many of the same rights as heterosexual residents, Montana only recently struck language from its code books making it illegal to be gay.
Greer said Westboro’s appearance in the state gives Montanans a good opportunity to examine issues like dignity, safety, security and fairness for all.
“I think groups like Westboro Baptist Church coming to town give us an opportunity to talk about where discrimination exists and how we can work together to end it,” Greer said.
Dr. Jay Smith, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Bozeman, addressed rally-goers. Smith said the Westboro Baptist Church does not represent the true teachings of the Baptist Church.
“You need to know that by some definition I, too, am a religious nut job, just of a different sort,” Smith said. “As a follower of Christ, I believe that God loves everyone: red, yellow, black, brown, white, gay, lesbian, transgender, straight, drunks, drug abusers, gossips, musicians, religious people, atheists, athletes, nerds, educated intellectualists and homespun country folks. Everyone.”
Rabbi Ed Stafman, of the Congregation Beth Shalom of Bozeman, is the acting chairman of the Gallatin Valley Interfaith Coalition.
Stafman said the rally was aimed at showing the world that Bozeman does not tolerate hate toward any group or people.
“This is a gathering to make the affirmative statement that Bozeman is a place where we tolerate diversity, and we seek equality,” Stafman said. “It doesn’t matter who the victim du jour may be.”