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Crash protests trumped In Clarence and Buffalo, counterdemonstrators vastly outnumber three members of Kansas fringe group opposed to homosexuality

Outnumbered more than 50 times over, three members of a Kansas-based fringe group here to picket a memorial service for a victim of the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 were hushed and eclipsed Sunday by counterprotesters in Buffalo and Clarence.

With many counterdemonstrators wearing white plastic angel wings and others holding large white flags and banners, two efforts by the three from Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., were rousingly overshadowed by the response of area students and residents who gathered because they said they opposed the group's hateful, anti-gay message.

"We wanted to show people that we don't put up with that sort of hate in Buffalo," said Meghann French, a city resident who stood Sunday afternoon on a Main Street sidewalk near the University at Buffalo's South Campus. "We just don't tolerate it."

The Westboro group had announced plans to picket near a memorial service in St. Joseph-University Catholic Church for Alison Des Forges, a human-rights activist who was one of the 50 people who died in the Feb. 12 plane crash.

At about 1:45 p.m., when the service had been scheduled to begin, the three Westboro pickets started walking along Main Street from Allenhurst Road.

In a matter of minutes, they were surrounded by dozens of the more than 150 counterdemonstrators, who came armed with the plain white cloths to hide the Westboro group's signs.

Just before 1:50 p.m., the three Westboro members walked back to their car with two of at least a dozen Buffalo police officers monitoring the situation.

Members of the Topeka group, an organization whose members hold harsh anti-gay views, travel across the country to protest at funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Anti-Defamation League, which monitors Westboro Baptist, says the group has no official affiliation with mainstream Baptist organizations. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies it as a hate group.

After the counterdemonstration, Patrick McGrath, a freshman at Buffalo State College, said, sarcastically, he hoped the Westboro members got their word out in the few minutes they walked along Main Street.

"As a community, we sure did," McGrath said.

Kitty Lambert, president of OUTspoken for Equality, a local gay-rights advocacy group, stressed the counterprotesters' intentions of keeping the fringe group's messages from being seen by those attending the service for Des Forges.

Lambert said she hopes the Des Forges family knows the event was intended "not to disrupt, but to support."

"This was done because we love what Alison stood for," she said.

Sunday morning, about 100 people, including many who later converged on the South Campus area, had gathered in Clarence Center as part of another counterdemonstration against the Westboro group.

The counterdemonstrators crowded on two of the street corners at Clarence Center and Goodrich roads, where the three-member group was protesting.

The Westboro demonstration, which lasted about 45 minutes, was intended to coincide with what the group thought would be a community prayer service for crash victims in Zion Lutheran Church, just two blocks away. Church officials, however, said they were holding normal Sunday services.

"Hatred in the name of Jesus is a despicable thing," said the Rev. Randy Milleville, the church's pastor.

The morning's counterprotests included people from across Western New York, as well as such groups as Vietnam Veterans Legacy Club and OUTspoken for Equality.

Joe and Marilyn Ruszala of Hamburg held homemade signs along the side of Clarence Center Road.

"I'm not standing for this in my neck of the woods," Marilyn Ruszala said. "This doesn't belong anywhere, and if no one stands up, they'll get away with it."

About a half dozen Erie County sheriff's deputies and other police kept the counterdemonstrators and the Westboro protesters separated, and no fiery confrontations occurred. The three Westboro protesters remained mostly silent, while a few counterdemonstrators occasionally jeered them.

The Erie County Sheriff's Office said the demonstrations resulted in no arrests.

When reached by phone after the protest in Buffalo, Jonathan Phelps, a son of the group's founder, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., said he believes police were working with the counterdemonstrators on Main Street and failed to protect his group's freedom of speech.

Jonathan Phelps said he and the two group members accompanying him Sunday faced imminent danger and were threatened and pushed by counterdemonstrators, whom he called "anarchists."

Video of the event showed no evidence of physical contact between the pickets and counterprotesters.

Standing on the porch of the Clarence Center Coffee Company and Cafe, Rocco and Carol Polino of Clarence said they came with their three children who were part of the counterprotest.

When asked about his reaction to the Westboro group's signs, Rocco Polino said: "I don't think I have a reaction. They hold them [the signs] to force you into a reaction. Why dignify it?"

e-mail: abesecker@buffnews.com

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