Members of Kansas church protest outside Bon Jovi concert
TAMPA - Picketers from a small but well-known Kansas church gathered outside the St. Pete Times Forum on Saturday evening to warn those going to a Bon Jovi concert that their godlessness was leading to their doom. But their singing and speeches often were drowned out by a grassroots counter-protest across the street organized by local gay rights activists. The Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka has gained notoriety in the past few years for showing up at the funerals of soldiers killed in action, arguing the military's tolerance of homosexuality brought about the soldiers' deaths. The signs held by a half dozen or so of the church's followers pronounced similar anti-homosexual and anti-Semitic sentiments and generally warned that America's end is near.In an interview, church leader Shirley Phelps-Roper said the group picked the Bon Jovi concert because lead singer Jon Bon Jovi should have been using his talents to warn his fans that their sinful lives were leading them to imminent destruction. Across the street, more than two dozen counter-protesters stood with their own signs. Some attacked Phelps-Roper, while others preached tolerance. "Honk for Love Not Hate," one sign urged motorists on their way to the concert, and some obliged. Among the counter-protesters was a person dressed up as Gumby holding a sign that said, "What Would Gumby Do?" Also among the group was Tampa strip club magnate Joe Redner. Using a bullhorn, Redner accused Phelps-Roper of trying to trick God into believing she wasn't gay. "They go and push people's buttons," Redner said beforehand. "I think it's about time someone pushed theirs." One man, Scott Levison, 53, of Pinellas Park found the anti-Semitic sign one of the church's followers particularly offensive. "I'm Jewish, my father's a Holocaust survivor and I'm seeing that," he said. The counter-protest was organized in large part by local gay activists R. Zeke Fread and Jen Greenfield, who set up an event page on Facebook urging people to make a showing. Saturday, they said they would not hold counter-protests at other Westboro Baptist Church appearances scheduled at schools, out of respect for the schools' wishes that there be no confrontations between opposing groups at their campuses.
Reporter Stephen Thompson can be reached at (727) 451-2336.