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Supporters make a stand, Phelps does not

POULSBO — If there was a point Fred Phelps was trying to make Saturday night, it’s pretty safe to say he failed.

The Topeka, Kan. pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for his violent anti-homosexual stance, made waves last month when he announced his intention to picket the Jewel Box Theatre’s showing of “The Laramie Project” Oct. 25. Phelps contends the play, depicting interviews with Laramie, Wyo. residents after the death of Matthew Shepard, glorifies homosexuality.

Phelps also intended to picket a handful of Poulsbo churches Oct. 26.

But not only did Phelps and his congregation fail to show, they likely would have been woefully outnumbered if they had.

A counter strike to Phelps’ intended appearance sponsored by the Kitsap Human Rights Network, Suquamish Community Congregational Church of Christ, Bainbridge Unity Coalition, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, A Territory Resources and the Suquamish Olalla Neighbors drew about 200 people Saturday night.

They gathered at the Kvelstad Pavilion bearing signs that read things like, “My God Doesn’t Hate,” “We Forgive You Rev. Phelps,” and “Judge Not.” Speakers ranged from Poulsbo Mayor Donna Jean Bruce to Senjii Kanaeda of the Nippon Zan Myohoji Temple on Bainbridge Island and the Rev. Tom Thresher of the Suquamish Church of Christ — but their message was the same.

“We’re here tonight because Fred Phelps is misled,” commented County Commissioner Chris Endresen, eliciting cheers from the crowd. “He’s misled when he thinks God hates ... He’s misled when he thinks our community will be seduced by hate ... He’s misled if he thinks we’re going to sit back and do nothing.”

“Ghandi said it’s as much our moral obligation to not cooperate with evil as it is to cooperate with good,” added Bob Hill of Soul Force.

After the rally, the group marched peacefully up Jensen to the Jewel Box Theatre. Under the whir of television news station mobile satellites and the watchful eye of Poulsbo Police officers, a candle light vigil lit up the darkening night. Spectrum Community School students held a yellow “banner against hate” along the block of Iverson in front of the theatre to ensure all ticket holders would have access to the show.

Talk among the group ranged from queries as to when Phelps was coming to their own personal reasons for braving the cold October night. Lighting a candle off her mother’s light, 8-year-old Alexis Nugent was matter-of-fact about her motivations.

“We’re out protesting the protest — and to support gay people,” she explained.

When asked why a young person like herself would choose to be part of such an issue, Alexis added, “My aunt’s gay, I mean, she’s a lesbian.”

Sen. Betti Sheldon, one of the evening’s speakers, said she had been shocked by the news Phelps and WBC intended to come to Poulsbo. She said she made a point of attending the rally to fight against hate of any form in North Kitsap.

“I cannot imagine the motivation of somebody like Phelps,” Sheldon commented. “I mean, ‘God hates fags?’ God loves everybody.”

Sheldon’s remarks referred to a sign that Phelps is known for carrying at protests.

Folks at the vigil also talked about the Jewel Box Theatre and “The Laramie Project.” Many in the counter-protest had seen the community theatre’s show already, or were among the ticket holders for the closing night show. Decked out in red, white and blue, including a hat that looked as if it were made of red cotton candy, the oldest member of the Poulsbo Players Jacquie Svidran joined the teenagers holding the “banner against hate.”

She said she’d seen “The Laramie Project” four times, and was there simply to support the theatre.

“It’s a very, very emotional play. Certainly a strong message and their cast is superb,” Svidran commented.

While Poulsbo Players had been anxious about what would happen Saturday night, Phelps’ announcement had also brought them sold out crowds. One woman in the counter-protest Saturday night said she hadn’t even known where the non-profit theatre was before the incident.

“I think this is the best thing that could have happened to the Jewel Box Theatre,” commented Clarence Moriwaki, special assistant for Kitsap County for U.S. Representative Jay Inslee’s office. “I think it’s the same thing that happened to Al Franken’s book when Fox sued him.”

The night wore on and the crowd anxiously awaited Phelps’ appearance. The rally’s 5 p.m. start time ticked by and soon it was 6:30 p.m., then it was 7:30 p.m. In Phelps’ original announcement of his intent to picket in Poulsbo, he’d listed 8 p.m. as his arrival time.

At 8 p.m., Jerry Hebert, president of the Kitsap Human Rights Network, thanked the crowd and announced that the counter rally was over. Neither Phelps, nor any of the WBC, had shown up.

“All right, we ran them out of town,” one woman yelled from the crowd.

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