Students respond to Westboro protestors with heart-shaped stickers, rainbow pins

Westboro Baptist Church sent three of its members to protest at Sacramento-area schools this week, calling the city one of the most depraved in America.

About a dozen counter protesters stood near the women at the entrance to Sacramento State University Tuesday, but they didn't interact.

In the campus library quad, students and staff were reacting to the protest by passing out heart-shaped stickers, rainbow pins and listening to speeches about diversity and inclusion.

"The Westboro Baptist church decided to send a few of its members over to preach hate and fear and anger at a population of our students, and so it was very important for our community to come out to show its support for one another and be the family that we are," said Beth Lesen, associate vice president of student affairs.

The Topeka, Kan.-based church has staged protests across the country against Jews, Muslims, military veterans, celebrities, mass-shooting victims and gay rights groups. Its members say they are fighting against sin, but the tactics are widely viewed as hateful.

Sacramento State was the trio's first stop. They waved signs saying things like "Repent or Perish" and "Mourn for your sins" in protest of the university's PRIDE Center, which offers support and services for the school's LGBT-plus community.

Shirley Phelps-Roper said she has been a member of the Westboro Baptist Church for 27 years, traveling every few weeks to protests.

"What got our attention was Rocklin," she said of this particular trip. Church members decided to picket Rocklin Gateway Academy because they believe a kindergarten teacher there was named Teacher of the Year by the Charter School Association because she read a book about a transgender child to kindergarten students during story time.

Phelps-Roper said they will stop off at Mira Loma High School in Sacramento because "all schools teach sin."

Tyler Cernohlavek, 19, an assistant at the university's Pride Center, said they have been running out of rainbow pins since Friday. "I personally find it important because it shows that our campus is a good place for us to be," he said of the turnout of about 200 students.

The Westboro Church protesters will move on to Mira Loma High School in Sacramento at 7:15 a.m. and then to Rocklin Gateway at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

About 20 Mira Loma parent volunteers and staff members will welcome students to school Wednesday morning, said Raj Rai, San Juan Unified spokeswoman.

"Everyone is welcome and accepted at Mira Loma, despite the protest and beliefs this group may have, all students are welcome and we want to make sure all our students feel welcome and safe," she said.

The church members will be at the K-8 charter school in Rocklin from 8:30 to 9 a.m.

A counter protest during the Rocklin event is being sponsored by the Gender Health Center of Sacramento, which is offering rides from the health center at 7:30 a.m. The Sacramento LGBT Center, PFLAG of Placer County and other organizations also plan to join the counter protest.

“We are hoping to show our support for the students in a very peaceful way,” said Claire Buckley, the director of the Sacramento LGBT Center. “It’s important to show diversity is accepted in our community. We celebrate diversity and we absolutely want to show support.”

The school is responding by shifting school hours by a few minutes to ensure students are all inside when the protest begins, said Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for the charter school .

The church, which is widely condemned by mainstream Christians, has previously protested at McClatchy and Granite Bay high schools, Sacramento houses of worship and the state Capitol.