Counter-Demonstration Planned for Westboro Baptist Church in Ames

The notorious hate ministry from Topeka, Kansas, was last in town after the Iowa Supreme Court struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage. Days before the 10-year anniversary of the ruling this week, the group announced plans to return Monday.

A Westboro Baptist Church counter-protest a decade ago in Ames. Photo: Molly Germaine/Flickr

Word spread quickly at the beginning of this week after the notorious Westboro Baptist Church announced 10 upcoming locations for its “picket schedule” that include Ames High School and Iowa State University. Both stops, according to the ministry’s website, GodHatesFags, are planned for early Monday morning. A local LGBT advocacy group is leading an effort to organize a peaceful counter-demonstration rejecting the hate group’s bigoted rhetoric.

The WBC did not respond to a request for comment asking why it chose Ames for its two announced stops in Iowa next week (the eight other events, scheduled to begin Saturday afternoon outside Minneapolis’ US Bank Stadium — host of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s Final Four — are all in Minnesota).

However, Wednesday marked the 10-year anniversary of the Iowa Supreme Court’s Varnum v. Brien ruling that struck down the state’s prohibition of same-sex marriage. The history of the case has direct ties to Ames: The first same-sex couple to marry in Iowa, then-ISU students Sean Fritz and Tim McQuillan, actually did so in 2007, before Polk County District Court Judge Robert Hanson issued a stay on his ruling in favor of equal marriage rights because of its pending appeal to the state Supreme Court. Fellow Ames residents Terry Lowman and Mark Kassis, owners of the now-shuttered downtown restaurant Lucullan’s Italian Grill, also applied for a marriage license before the stay and were wed at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, albeit on murkier legal ground at the time.

Three and a half months after the state high court’s 2009 ruling, a small group of WBC members traveled to Ames to protest it. They were dwarfed by a counter-protest of more than 300 people, many of them Iowa State University students.

If the WBC makes good on its plans to revisit Ames Monday, a similar scenario will almost certainly play out.

Ames Pride, an LGBT advocacy organization founded in 2017 that hosts the city’s annual Pridefest event, posted a message to its Facebook page Tuesday inviting residents to stop in at the Collegiate United Methodist Church in Campustown from 6 to 10 pm Sunday to help make signs “showing support for gender and sexual minority students, staff, and faculty at Ames High School.” The message added that counter-demonstrators planned to arrive across the street from the high school at 6:30 am Monday, ahead of the WBC’s scheduled 7:20 protest start. “When hate comes to our home we are compelled to action,” the message read.

On Wednesday, the Facebook page posted an update, announcing that Geoff Huff, a commander with the Ames Police Department, would be at the church at 6:30 pm Sunday to “talk about safety and non-engagement.”

Later, after receiving messages from parents asking if they planned to address the WBC’s plans, high school officials released a statement saying they “felt as though it was important for all of our parents to be aware as it can provide an opportunity to have conversations at home.” The statement also mentioned that police would be present, and predicted that only three WBC members would show up.

Whether or not to engage the WBC protesters has been an ongoing topic of discussion since the plans to visit Ames were first announced. Some residents have argued that the group, which has few adherents outside of the extended Phelps family, should simply be ignored. Virtually no one takes its outlandish rhetoric seriously, they say, and to respond to it would validate the group’s thirst for attention. Others have suggested direct confrontation, even throwing eggs, perhaps. The effort organized by Ames Pride takes a third approach, acknowledging the real harm that hate speech including calling gay people “fags” can cause, regardless of the standing of the group that says it, but — at least in its Facebook posts — not acknowledging the group itself, instead shifting the focus to a message of acceptance.

According to its schedule, the WBC plans to wrap up the AHS protest at 7:50 in time for an 8:05 am protest at ISU. It would be at least the third time its members came to campus. They also protested outside Hilton Coliseum during graduation ceremonies in 1998, according to what university spokesperson John McCarroll told the Iowa State Daily ten years ago.

Before the WBC’s 2009 stop, Warren Blumenfeld, then an assistant professor of multicultural and international curriculum studies at ISU, penned an op-ed in the Ames Tribune that called on residents to support the LGBT community. The op-ed included a quote from the GodHatesFags website: “‘God hates Iowa’ for being ‘the first to begin giving $ to little [homosexual] perverts for no other reason then [sic] they brag about being little perverts.'”

Writing for the Huffington Post in 2014, Blumenfeld included an excerpt of an unpublished, anti-Semitic letter to the Tribune submitted in 2009 by Margie Phelps, one of the daughters of WBC founder Fred Phelps, in response to his op-ed:

How the Jews have taught people all over the world to be proud sinners in God’s face is by double-talking voo doo bull crap like Warren Blumenfeld’s 7/17 column. You think if you fill the air with puffy vain words you can change the standard of God. Get real! The reason Jews belong in the same category as homosexuals is because they’re both vile sinners before God — period. See for the facts. There is not a group of people more sodomy-enabling in this world than the apostate reprobate Jews….

Fred Phelps died in 2014 at the age of 84, leaving behind a perplexing legacy. He founded the Westboro Baptist Church as a fundamentalist ministry in the 1950s but obtained a law degree nine years later. He focused on civil rights cases, representing African Americans who raised various allegations of racial discrimination. His work was once praised by the NAACP.

But he went on to become known primarily for the WBC’s bizarre and hateful rhetoric, as well as the group’s regular, if sparsely attended, public demonstrations that received almost universal condemnation because of the bigoted protest signs associated with them and hurtful tactics including picketing the funerals of soldiers while proclaiming, “God hates America.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups across the country, called the WBC “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”

Corrections: This post initially quoted an excerpt from an email Margie Phelps sent Warren Blumenthal, not from the letter to the editor Phelps submitted to the Tribune. Both excerpts can be read in Blumenthal’s 2014 Huffington Post article. It also attributed a Facebook post to Ames High School that was actually a paraphrased comment. This post has been updated to quote and link to the statement itself.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.