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Protesters Unite Against Westboro Baptist and Hate

Counter-protesters, including Moravian College students and a Pennsylvania National Guardsman from Bethlehem, showed up at Lehigh Valley churches Sunday where the controversial Westboro Baptist Church said it would protest.

Westboro Baptist Church's threat to protest at four Lehigh Valley churches on Sunday was, in the end, an idle one.

The controversial church known for its extreme views on homosexuality and protests at military funerals, was a no-show.

But the Kansas-based church rallied a diverse crowd that included a Sunday school teacher, a cigar afficionado club, motorcyclists in chaps and Moravian College students, to get up early on a frigid Sunday morning to publicly and peacefully take a stand against Westboro's message of hate and intolerance.

Westboro's potential presence here was enough to get Ryan Bitler, 22, of Bethlehem, out of bed and attend his first protest. Bitler is a Pennsylvania National Guardsman who served a year in Afghanistan as a machine gunner guarding convoys.

"We lost three men," Bitler said. And at each of the soldier's funerals, "we were afraid [Westboro Baptist] would show up," he said.

The atmosphere was convivial, as South Whitehall and Allentown police chatted with the counter-protesters, someone played a ukulele and another, dressed as a banana, stood next to a young man carrying a sign that said, "Westboro Baptist Church is bananas."

South Whitehall Police Lt. John Christman, who was at First Baptist, said it was a non-event. "It’s more social than anything." As for the controversial Westboro Baptists, he said, "I feel fortunate they didn’t show."

A passerby who slowed his car as he approached St. Paul's Anglican Church in Allentown, lowered his window, read the signs and said, "Oh, these are the good people" before driving away.

First Baptist Church Pastor Chuck Reed, Deacon Ross Lyon and parishioner Martha Henninger walked over to thank about 40 people who gathered outside their church on N. 19th Street in South Whitehall, the last of the four stops that included St. Paul's Anglican Church in Allentown, Asbury United Methodist Church in South Whitehall and Cathedral of St. Catharine in Allentown.

"Isn't this nice that people showed up to stand up for what's right?," Henninger said.

"Westboro is not a legitimate church," said Lyon, a retired Baptist minister. "A church that acts like that is not a church. Most of us as Christians or Americans really object to what Westboro does at military funerals. They spew hate and get more notoriety."

Ron Clever made a point to stop at St. Paul's before he teaching Sunday School at First Presbyterian in South Whitehall.

"I'm a very staunch First Amendment advocate but I don't think people should be mean to each other. I disagree with [Westboro's] theology."

Westboro's potential visit sparked other first-time protesters such as Kara Rosa, 21, of Forks Township, who held a sign that said, "God hates hate."

The church's views offend her, she said. "If you've ever read the Bible, God's message is love," Rosa said.

Caroline Reinik of Allentown, whose son, a Marine, served two tours in Afghanistan, rode her Harley Davidson to each of the four churches, where she was joined by a half-dozen other motorcyclists who organized a group from Stroudsburg.

An online petition to classify Westboro as a hate group and revoke its federal tax-exempt status has gained close to 74,000 signatures.

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