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Members of the Westboro Baptist Church arrived in Madison to publically oppose the ordination of the first openly gay minister in the Presbyterian Church, Madison resident Scott Anderson. The controversial group, who are known for protesting at soldier’s funerals and contend tolerance of homosexuality leads to punishment from God, was outnumbered by citizens promoting equality and their support for the minister.[/media-credit]

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church were in Madison Saturday to protest the ordination of a local man as the first openly gay minister ordained by Presbyterian Church USA.

Nine members of the Westboro Church picketed outside Covenant Presbyterian Church on South Segoe Road to oppose long-time Madison community leader Scott Anderson’s ordination. They were joined by more than 50 counter-protesters to voice their indignation with the Westboro protesters.

The Westboro group carried signs saying “God Hates Fags” and “God Hates America” and said “fags” are why the country is “damned to hell.”

The group has a national presence centered around controversial beliefs. Known for radical protests, Westboro Baptist Church is particularly infamous for picketing the funerals of soldiers. 

“[The group believes] God is punishing America for its sins, including the tolerance of homosexuals,” University of Wisconsin political science professor Donald Downs. “These views are abhorrent to almost everyone in America.”

Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, said the group was in Madison to remind people of what the group believes to be the consequences of homosexuality.

Phelps-Roper said by protesting, she was “fulfilling her duty” to “love my neighbor as self, and to warn him that his sin is taking him to hell.”

Between 50 and 60 people from churches around Madison gathered to counter-protest.

“They provided a wonderful witness – it was a wonderful morning, full of dignity and grace and healing,” Anderson said.

The counter-protesters gathered across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church members, holding rainbow flags and signs and chanting “we are standing on the side of love.”

Anderson said the Westboro Baptist Church’s presence during the ceremony was a “sideshow.”

“People know they’re coming; we’re going ahead with the service,” Anderson said before the ceremony. “People are giving a different witness to God’s work than the picketing we see on the sidewalk.”

Still, Phelps-Roper said Westboro Baptist Church enjoyed the presence of protesters. She said gaining a greater audience only furthers the group’s mission.

“Our goal is to take these words and spread them over the area and the attention of the media is helping us do just that,” Phelps-Roper said.

Madison police were on site to ensure tensions did not escalate. Downs, a First Amendment expert, said the Westboro Church was acting fully within their rights.

“As the Supreme Court ruled last spring in Snyder v. Phelps, [the Westboro group’s] views deal with a matter of public concern – the moral state of America as they see it,” Downs said. “The First Amendment protects all ideas relating to public issues, regardless of how abhorrent.”

Anderson’s ordination marks a historic moment in the Presbyterian Church. Anderson said a change was made this summer in the church’s constitution, allowing ordination regardless of sexual orientation.

Anderson said he had been in the process of trying to reclaim his ordination for five or six years, which is why he was the first to be ordained in the nation. He was originally a minister more than 20 years ago, but was forced to resign when he publicly admitted he is gay.