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Fringe group to picket memorials

A religious fringe group from Topeka, Kan., is coming to Clarence Center and Buffalo on Sunday to picket memorial services for victims of Continental Connection Flight 3407.

Westboro Baptist Church has long been associated with virulent anti-gay views and has picketed the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members contend that the deaths it pickets are God's punishment for what it considers the nation's permissive attitude toward homosexuals.

Church members plan to picket outside a 10 a.m. nondenominational and community prayer service in Zion Lutheran Church, 9535 Clarence Center Road, Clarence Center.

Pickets also will be at St. Joseph-University Catholic Church, 3269 Main St., to protest a memorial service set at 1:45 p.m. for human rights advocate Alison Des Forges.

Members of the church also planned to be in Lutz, Fla., today to picket the memorial service for Marvin D. Renslow, Flight 3407's pilot.

"It's pretty cold and heartless," Rick Zabel of Clarence Center said when learning about the group's visit. "Can't they find something a little more constructive to do?"

Zabel was one of several people who told The Buffalo News that they had never heard of the group or were, at best, vaguely aware of it.

"I don't think it's going to help anyone around here. People are trying to process this. Residents here need to heal themselves," said Daveq Merlo, also of Clarence Center.

Funerals for the grandmother of President Obama, then-President Bill Clinton's mother, Frank Sinatra and hate-crime murder victim Matthew Shepard are among the hundreds that church members have picketed.

Their picketing of soldiers killed in action has led some states to pass laws prohibiting picketing at funerals.

Westboro Baptist Church is centered on the extended family of founder Fred Phelps Sr., a disbarred lawyer. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League estimated that the church had 70 members.

A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, titled "A City Held Hostage," described Topeka as being "bullied into submission" over the years by the strong-arm tactics of the Phelps family through its constant threat of lawsuits. The church has been engaged in nearly daily picketing outside Topeka concert halls, restaurants and other public venues for nearly 20 years in addition to its pickets across the United States and beyond.

"Topeka is now identified with Fred Phelps," former Mayor Joan Wagnon was quoted as saying several years ago. "If someone could figure out how to get him off the streets, they could be elected mayor for life."

"These people are trying to play God," said Debbie Henning, who works at Mardee's restaurant in Clarence Center and has a son serving in Iraq.

She said she thinks law enforcement should prevent church members from picketing.

Scott A. Bylewski, the Clarence town supervisor, says that he understands the sentiment but that the town does not want to contribute to the kind of coverage the group craves.

"I'm upset, hurt and angry that they would use this personal grief to bring out their own twisted agenda," he said.

A counterdemonstration that began being organized Thursday on Facebook is now expected.

Zion Lutheran Church also will be offering grief counseling through the day Sunday, beginning an hour before the 10 a.m. community prayer service.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com and lmichel@buffnews.com

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