A group of protesters from a controversial Kansas church is visiting a slew of sites throughout the Bay Area this week, including several schools, a Jewish community center in San Francisco and Twitter headquarters.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, which has received national attention for its anti-gay message and its protests outside the funerals of soldiers, protested at several spots in San Francisco Thursday, including Lowell High School, where students organized a large counter-protest.
Friday morning, they will be at Palo Alto’s Gunn High School then at Stanford University’s Taube Hillel House, among other locations.
Church member Shirley Phelps-Roper said the church was drawn to Gunn because of the suicides of several current and former students on the Caltrain tracks since May. The group blames the suicides on a lack of Christian faith, and plans to picket in part because they believe students’ parents “have taught them God is a liar.”
Don Larkin, assistant city attorney for Palo Alto, said the city had recently received a notice from the group saying that they would be coming to the school.
Larkin said the city has been working with school administrators “who are doing what they can to keep the demonstration from being disruptive to the students.”
The school’s start time has been pushed back by about an hour Friday, said Kathleen Ruegsegger, administrative assistant to Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Kevin Skelly.
Ruegsegger said the district e-mailed parents to notify them of the administration’s plans for the day, as well as the planned police response.
Palo Alto police Lt. Sandra Brown said the Police Department will have officers posted at the school. She said some Gunn students have planned a counter-protest nearby and the officers will ensure civility among the groups.
“They have the right to freedom of speech and we just want to make sure they’re allowed to do that,” Brown said.
Larkin encouraged residents to ignore the protesters.
“They’re a pretty outrageous group,” he said. “Their goal is to get attention, and we don’t want to feed into that.”
The group, which Phelps-Roper said will consist of no more than 10 people, will be picketing outside the school from 7:25 a.m. to 7:55 a.m., according to a schedule posted on the church’s Web site.
The schedule also listed several protests in San Francisco Thursday, including 12:15 p.m. picketing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 3:20 p.m. picketing at Lowell High School, and 4:30 p.m. picketing at Twitter headquarters on Folsom Street.
When church members visited Lowell High School Thursday, they were met by a large group of students who held a peace rally in response to the group’s presence.
San Francisco Unified School District spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said the students sang, danced and formed a barricade to prevent members of the church from coming into a courtyard at the school.
Blythe said the district coordinated with staff, students and parents to ensure the church’s appearance at the school today was problem-free. She said the students’ rally went well.
“It was really a very positive event celebrating support and diversity for all different students, a very successful way for them to support the types of groups that are targeted” by the church, Blythe said.
Nina Grotch, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s San Francisco office, said the office coordinated with the various sites where Westboro members showed up today to provide information about the church and its tactics.
Along with anti-gay rhetoric, the church also espouses anti-Semitic, anti-black and anti-government rhetoric, Grotch said.
She said the ADL encourages people to not engage with the church members, because while they have “no history of being violent, they’re just there to provoke.”
Grotch said the organization suggested that the students not hold the rally, “but 15-year-olds are going to do what they’re going to do.”