RNS video by Kellie Kotraba.
COLUMBIA, Mo. (RNS) Thousands of people wearing red shirts gathered in this city's downtown Saturday (July 21) to honor an Army solider killed recently in Afghanistan -- and to fend off Westboro Baptist Church.
The controversial church, which is based in Topeka, Kan., had posted fliers around Columbia in advance of the funeral of Army Spc. Sterling Wyatt, who was killed July 11 by an improvised explosive device.
“These soldiers are dying for the homosexual and other sins of America. God is now America’s enemy, and God Himself is fighting against America," the posters read. "THANK GOD FOR IEDs.”
Protesting at military funerals has become a ritual of Westboro Baptist Church’s, whose members believe that the service members' deaths are punishment for the country's toleration of homosexuality. Since the early 1990s, the church claims to have held 43,000 demonstrations. They have picketed churches, synagogues, government buildings and funerals of soldiers, celebrities and gay men.
In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the protests -- although extremely unpopular -- are protected by the Constitution.
But some communities, like Columbia, are responding to Westboro's protests in kind -- with counter-protests.
On Sunday, for example, counter-protesters gathered in Aurora, Colo., to form a human wall around the prayer vigil for the families of 12 people who died in Friday's movie theater shooting, after Westboro Baptist Church threatened to appear.
Westboro didn't go to Aurora, but on Saturday they traveled to Columbia, where red-shirted residents also formed a human wall for Wyatt’s funeral at First Baptist Church.
The plan was to surround the church, but the group, numbering in the thousands, spilled into the street and spanned several blocks down the sidewalk.
Westboro gathered down the street from the church. To some community members, the protest was hardly noticeable -- many didn’t even see the protesters, who left around 1 p.m.
“We won,” said 9-year-old Taylor Hewlett, watching his dad, Nathan Rascher, help put a flag away.
“We were doing what’s right,” his dad said, “and the bad guys went away.”
Many in the crowd said they were simply there to support Wyatt’s family.
Beatrice McKinzie drove about an hour to be there. She didn’t know Wyatt or his family, but several members of her family have been in the military.
“I feel really bad that I never served,” she said.
Every Memorial Day, she lines her yard with 30 evenly spaced flags. On Saturday, she brought four with her -- one for each member of the Wyatt family. She had seen a picture of his parents, Randy and Sherry Wyatt, and his brother, Chandler Wyatt, standing by the hearse that bore Wyatt’s body.
“I had to be here,” she said.
Megan Miller, a University of Missouri student, went to Rock Bridge High School with Wyatt. They didn’t spend a lot of time together, but she remembers eating lunch with him sometimes and going to his house once.
“He loved to talk to people, even if they weren’t responsive to him,” she said. And he smiled all the time.
Like Miller, Louie Markovitz went to high school with Wyatt. He didn’t spend much time with his former classmate, but he remembers Wyatt clearly -- especially from yearbook photos of the school’s Zombie Defense League, a club Wyatt was part of.
Markovitz, a university student, now works for the local veterans hospital, and he said he has respect for the veterans.
“The military, I don’t necessarily agree with what they do, but I think you should support your soldiers,” he said.
Just before Wyatt’s funeral began, the crowd on the church lawn fell silent -- passing cars were the only sound, though people down the street still spoke. As time for the procession drew near, people started spreading out with a goal of lining the route to the cemetery.
The procession fell silent as the hearse passed by, but it ended with applause.