The controversial Westboro Baptist Church has carried out its first demonstration since the death of its founder Fred Phelps – and was met with a quite brilliant response from counter-protesters.
Picketing a performance by the 17-year-old singer Lorde in Kansas, members of the church turned out with their usual set of signs proclaiming hate slogans – from “God hates fags” to “Thank God for dead soldiers”.
Yet on this occasion they were met by a series of counter-protests – spurred on by tweets from Lorde herself when she discovered the church would be attending.
Among the positive messages displayed was a bright yellow banner declaring: “Live your life and be awesome”.
And in reference to the death of 84-year-old pastor Phelps, protesters standing opposite Westboro members unfurled a sign which read: “Sorry for your loss”.
The issue of how to respond to Phelps’ death has itself been controversial – with some supporting the idea of picketing his funeral.
The church he founded has staged protests at thousands of funerals over the years, including US servicemen who Phelps claimed were killed by God as punishment for the country’s tolerance towards homosexuality.
Megan Coleman, who helped make the “sorry for your loss” banner, told KSHB Kansas: “We realized that it wasn't so much about antagonizing them, but sending out the counter message that we are here for people who need that message and need that positivity.”
She said that the counter-protests showed how the church could have a positive impact, contrary to its intentions. “It still does kind of bring everyone else together and so I think it's kind of counter-productive on that end.”
Claiming ignorance, church spokesperson and long-time member Steve Drain said of the banner: “I don’t even know what they mean by what they’re saying.”
Last week Phelps’ estranged son Nathan said the pastor was “on the edge of death”, and revealed that he was excommunicated from the church in 2013.