A guy I never saw before walked up to me a few years ago on the sidewalk in Pittsburgh out front of Heinz Hall and said, right out of the blue, "God hates fags."
Across the street, behind a police line, about a dozen protesters were chanting and carrying large signs: "God Hates Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood," "God hates queers," "Mr. Rogers Is Burning In Hell."
The protesters were from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.
Along with a large crowd on the sidewalk right before showtime, I was inching my way into Heinz Hall with my wife to attend a Fred Rogers memorial service.
Rogers had a wife, too, along with two sons and grandkids, plus a Presidential Medal of Freedom. But somehow he was perceived as still too "gay" for some people when he put on his sneakers, buttoned up his cardigan sweater and began to softly sing "Won’t You Be My Neighbor" to the kids.
For the Westboro group, I guess that song sounded too much like everyone was welcome, like it would be just fine if Elton John moved in next door with his husband and their new nontraditionally produced son, a kid who arrived with five names — Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John.
Maybe the anger coming from the street protesters about Rogers and his neighborhood was linked to their national security anxieties. Perhaps they think it was better when our kids were entertained by watching cowboys eradicate indigenous people in their own neighborhoods.
Maybe they think it’s better for us when our kids get desensitized to resource fights and the might-is-right ethos, lest they become too weak-kneed to fight kamikaze pilots, underwear bombers and whatever else is tossed in our direction.
A Welcome Wagon is no match for bloodthirsty jihadists.
The aforementioned Heinz Hall incident was brought to mind when the Supreme Court recently affirmed in a lopsided 8-to-1 ruling that the Westboro Baptist Church had the right to stage anti-gay protests at the funerals of U.S. troops.
The signs they carry at soldiers’ funerals say things similar to what the signs said at Heinz Hall: "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "U.S. Troops in Hell," "God Hates Your Dead Son & Your Tears."
The Supreme Court case resulted from Albert Snyder suing the Westboro church after its members picketed the funeral of his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq. The court rejected Snyder’s argument that the church invaded privacy and caused intentional distress.
The Westboro Baptist Church basically consists of Fred Phelps and his family. Their message is that America’s military deaths are God’s punishment for our growing acceptance of gay men and lesbians. Ellen DeGeneres is tops on TV and Elton John is rich, married and touring, so God is allegedly pleased when our troops get killed.
"America is doomed for its acceptance of homosexuality," contends Phelps. "If God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for going after fornication and homosexuality, then why wouldn’t God destroy America for the same thing."
I’m not learned in theology, but I think that, in addition to Sodom and Gomorrah, there’s also something in the Bible about God killing a million Ethiopians, plus the first born of Egyptians, plus Onan for some incorrect spilling, plus there were allegedly lions, bears and worms sent by God to eat up on assorted skeptics and free thinkers.
In any case, I asked the anti-Rogers protesters at Heinz Hall about God eradicating the first born in Egypt, mostly heterosexuals, along with Mr. Onan and some noncompliant guys who ate some fish without fins, but they just clammed up and got back in their vans.
Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.
Ralph R. Reiland / 5623 Baptist Road / Pittsburgh, Pa. 15236