Nathan Burchfiel | Correspondent | Monday, February 27, 2006
(CNSNews.com) - A group of motorcycle riders who attend U.S. soldiers' funerals to protect them from anti-homosexual protestors is quickly approaching the 10,000-member mark.
The Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) escort families of fallen soldiers to funeral services and stand between the funeral proceedings and protestors from the Westboro Baptist Church, who picket the ceremonies with anti-American and anti-homosexuality slogans.
The Westboro Baptist Church, according to its website godhatesfags.com, believes that God uses improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq to avenge the August 1995 bombing of the church headquarters in Topeka, Kan. Church founder Fred Phelps Sr. believes the 1995 bomb was a government attempt to silence his group. Topeka police ruled it a random attack that was part of a string of bombings in the area.
Members of Phelps' church stand outside funeral services holding signs that say, "God Hates Fags," and "God Hates the USA." They also sing songs with anti-homosexual messages. Patriot Group Riders stand between church members and funerals, usually using American flags to obstruct the protestors' view.
The "rides," as PGR members call their events, began in August 2005 when members of the American Legion rode motorcycles to funerals as a response to Westboro's protests. PGR spokesman Kurt Mayer said the group has seen "an explosion of growth" since it went nationwide in November and opened chapters in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.
Mayer added that the group "completely crosses all demographic boundaries" and that the membership includes veterans and non-veterans, corporate executives and coal miners, the young and the old. He said the cost of running the PGR website is "self-absorbed."
The group also recently started a pen pal campaign that pairs members with soldiers serving overseas and recovering in Veterans Affairs hospitals in the United States
Fred Phelps Sr. has written on his church's website that soldiers deserve to be hated because "they voluntarily joined a fag-infested army to fight for a fag-run country now utterly and finally forsaken by God who Himself is fighting against that country."
The church teaches that anyone who does not vocally oppose homosexuality and preach God's hatred for homosexuals is damned to hell.
Westboro spokesman Jacob Phelps, the 22-year old grandson of Fred Phelps Sr., told Cybercast News Service that the church doesn't care about the counter protests. "They can be out there if they want," he said of PGR members, "but it doesn't change our message or view. We're going to continue to preach God's word to these people."
Jacob Phelps said members of the PGR have "struck us a couple times," a charge that Mayer denies.
"I know that since the organization's been formed, there have been no physical altercations or confrontations," Mayer said, adding that "there've been no charges filed." He said his group has strict rules against interacting with Westboro members.
"What we tell our members is that the way to show disrespect and the ultimate, absolute sign of disrespect is to turn your back on somebody," he told Cybercast News Service. "You're not going to solve anything by a war of words or with a physical confrontation."
Jacob Phelps criticized states like Kentucky, which are seeking to ban protests at funerals. He said the bans would constitute a violation of their free speech rights, but said church members would "respect the law."
"We're not going to break any laws that will give these people an opportunity to throw us in jail, because God also says that we're supposed to abide the laws of man," Phelps said. "If they say that we have to be back 500 feet, then we will. Then, if our lawyers feel that we should sue, then we will."
Mayer said he thinks the laws are necessary and that he is "saddened that we would have to pass laws that cover common sense in terms of human decency."
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