Counterprotest planned by community groups

Fri, May 7, 2004 (9:37 a.m.)

Local high school students received a crash course in the do's and don'ts of "peaceful counter-protesting" Thursday night at the Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada.

More than 50 people -- including local high school students, church, community and gay-community leaders -- gathered at the center to discuss a planned counter-protest against Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka at Las Vegas Academy at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday.

During the meeting, students learned what to expect at Wednesday morning's picketing and actions to avoid, including physical contact with members of Westboro Baptist Church and other "violent backlashes to comments" they might hear.

Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said members of the Westboro Baptist Church "are professionals at getting people agitated."

He warned people to not fight back, saying if they do, they could face legal consequences.

"Don't let them sucker you in," he said. "Don't let them get the best of you or it's going to be bad news."

The attendees were also informed of what sidewalks they could legally walk on during the protest and what kind of signs should be constructed to promote the best message.

The Rev. Jay DiCotignano of Holy Innocents American Catholic Church in Las Vegas, a church which allows gays, women and married people to be ordained, told students the best message they could get across is their support of Las Vegas Academy.

"I think we need to all applaud these students as they get off the bus and walk into their classes," he said. "I already know what my sign is going to say -- 'God loves students at Las Vegas Academy.'th"

Rev. David Krueger-Duncan of Northwest Community Church in Las Vegas said he wants to show students that "God hates hate" and Westboro Baptist Church is not representative of church leaders and their stance on gay and lesbian issues.

Thursday's meeting was an important step in educating students about "what they're up against" and "how to react peacefully," said Bob Bellis, executive director of the center.

"Westboro Baptist Church is organized about their protests and so we need to get them (the students) organized," he said. "We need to teach them how to react, how to show support and basically teach them tolerance."

Diana Shirkey, a junior at Silverado High School who plans to attend the counter-protest, said she learned a valuable lesson at Thursday's meeting.

"I'm glad they told us about what would happen if we got physical or pushed," she said. "It's my natural reaction to throw fists when someone pushes my buttons. Now, I'll just ignore them, although it might be hard to."

Las Vegas Academy junior Jamie Conception, interviewed after school at the Las Vegas Academy campus Thursday afternoon, shared the same emotions.

"I can understand that they want to provoke us so we hit them, and that will hurt us," she said. "But this is our school. It's tough to stay silent especially if they shout obscenities at us."

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