Police outnumber protesters at antigay march in Allentown

Posted: December 07, 2002

ALLENTOWN — A church group from Kansas known for its crude antigay diatribes arrived yesterday to little fanfare in the Lehigh Valley, where its first protest was met by more police officers than counterdemonstrators.

Earlier, more than 100 Lehigh University students had gathered on the Bethlehem campus to demonstrate against the Westboro Baptist Church, but an airline cancellation had caused the Topeka group to miss the scheduled protest there.

The group then arrived at 4:30 p.m. for a protest aimed at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, where nine members picketed along a nearby street carrying signs bearing slogans such as "God Hates Fags," "Thank God for Sept. 11," and "Prepare to Meet Thy God."

The pickets were confined to a small stretch of sidewalk and surrounded by more than 20 Allentown police officers, many of whom wore riot helmets. Small groups of students watched in silence from a safe distance, and neighborhood resident Chris Hoenscheid was the lone counterdemonstrator.

"That's not what Christianity is about," said Hoenscheid, 32, who carried a cardboard sign that read: "Christian, not close-minded."

"They have as much right to be here as anyone else," he said, "but I think they are a little misguided."

Westboro members, who are led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, decided to bring their crusade against homosexuality to the Lehigh Valley after residents spoke out against a Baptist preacher who had suggested that the Sept. 11 attacks resulted from America's growing tolerance of same-sex unions.

The Westboro group will protest at Lehigh and several Bethlehem churches today. It targeted Cedar Crest because the college recently gave an award to tennis great Billie Jean King, a lesbian.

"This place needs some preaching to," said Westboro picket Charles Hockenbarger, 28, who is married to one of Mr. Phelps' daughters. "Any university that is going to put a dyke like Billie Jean King up on a pedestal needs a whole lot of preaching to."

As rush-hour traffic on Hamilton Street crawled past the pickets, motorists peered out their windows with mystified expressions. Groups from the women's college watched quietly from a hillside on campus.

At Lehigh, where the Westboro group failed to show earlier in the day, student activist Meghan Punschke said the big student turnout showed the campus was mobilized against intolerance.

"This brought all kinds of people together who normally wouldn't socialize with each other," Punschke, 21, said. "It's more about us coming together than it is about them."

Contact Oliver Prichard at 610-313-8219 or oprichard@phillynews.com.

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