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Westboro Baptist members protest same-sex marriages in Maryland

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A handful of Westboro Baptist Church protesters picketing same-sex marriage in front of courthouses in Annapolis and Towson Wednesday were met with large groups of counter-protesters holding signs preaching tolerance.

In the state capital, more than 250 people gathered in the early morning, singing carols, to counter four members of the ultra-conservative Westboro Baptist, which is based in Kansas.

St. Anne's Episcopal Church, across the street from the Annapolis courthouse, organized the counter-protest there.

"When people came to our city to preach hate, we stood up to them," Annapolis Mayor Joshua Cohen said after the protest ended. "It was a beautiful scene."

Wednesday marked the first day the courthouse was open for business after Maryland's same-sex marriage law took effect on Jan. 1. Westboro Baptist, known for picketing military funerals around the nation, staged a second protest in front of the Baltimore County Circuit Courthouse in Towson later in the morning.

In Towson, counter-protesters held signs with messages including "All Love is Beautiful" and "Marriage is About Love not Gender" — contrasting Westboro Baptist members' signs declaring "Same-sex marriage dooms nations."

On its website, Westboro Baptist Church stated it was picketing in Maryland because "they became the first state to vote in Same-Sex Marriage."

"Westboro brings these words of warning, knowing they may be the last that you get," the group wrote. "Your duty is to fear and obey God, and do it like you mean it, with joy and gladness."

"You know, Connecticut has same-sex marriage," said Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of Westboro Baptist Church who was at the Towson gathering. "God sent the shooter into Newtown."

Officials in Baltimore County and Annapolis said there were no incidents related to the protests.

In Baltimore County, officials of the sheriff's office and Police Department met before Christmas to discuss plans for the protest to ensure safety and protect First Amendment rights, police spokeswoman Elise Armacost said. They also tried to make sure couples entering the courthouse to get married could do so with as little disruption as possible, she said.

In Annapolis, the counter-protest included a half-dozen Annapolis High School students who said their first-period history teacher endorsed their idea to skip class and face the Westboro protesters instead.

"Their whole organization is offensive," said Adam Walden, 16. "They were here to preach hate, we were there to preach love."

The teenagers said they saw a few same-sex couples walk past the protesters and into the courthouse, where they could have a ceremony performed.

Westboro members "don't have the right to ruin someone's wedding day," said Sarah Sykora, 16. "It makes us really mad, so we wanted to stand up."

Sylvia Lohr arrived by 7 a.m. with Katie Harris, her partner of 21 years, to find a gathering that grew to include members of area Presbyterian, Unitarian and Baptist churches, along with those of St. Anne's, to face the Westboro protesters.

"We came out [to the counter-protest] because St. Anne's wraps their arms around us," Lohr said.

In Towson, the Baltimore County seat, dozens of counter-protesters gathered in front of the courthouse. They included several motorcyclists who waved American flags.

"There's been so many people that have died for the American flag, for their rights to do what they do," said biker Michael Sutt of Baltimore, adding that he has clashed before with Westboro members at a picketing event at Arlington National Cemetery.

Melissa Tillery, 26, and Tevis Tsai, 25, of Towson, attended the counter-protest because "we didn't want anybody's wedding to be ruined," Tillery said. "We wanted to brighten the courthouse instead of bringing doom and gloom," said Tillery, who had brought purple and white flowers to the event in case she encountered any newlyweds.

The Westboro members were scheduled to picket in Towson between 10 a.m. and 10:45 a.m., but arrived early and left by about 10:15 a.m. Cheers erupted when they departed.

"You're not welcome here!" one woman shouted as Westboro members walked away from the courthouse.

ecox@baltsun.com

alisonk@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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