Students unite against anti-gay protest
Rally at Whitman high school draws more than 500 people
Walt Whitman High School staff and police commended students for organizing a nonviolent demonstration Friday after school hours, as more than 500 people from across the county descended on the school for a counter-protest of an anti-gay group.
In response to a visit by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, students from Walt Whitman, Walter Johnson, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Richard Montgomery and Rockville high schools peacefully protested against the group, holding gay-pride flags and posters preaching tolerance, reading poems by Walt Whitman and chanting "God doesn't hate."
"The students set a great example of how to be civil and respectful," said Whitman Principal Alan Goodwin. "The students were well-organized, and I'm very proud of them."
The Topeka, Kan., church has drawn attention in recent years for protesting the funerals of military veterans and for their picket signs — including "Thank God for 9/11" and "Thank God for Katrina." Members of the church believe that the military deaths and natural disasters were God's punishment for an immoral nation.
The church's Web site claims that American poet Walt Whitman, for whom the high school is named, would support wounded soldiers during the Civil War, then attempt to take advantage of them. The fact that Maryland school officials would name a school after Whitman, the site says, "certainly explains A LOT about Maryland, and specifically explains why God hates them so much."
Whitman's sexuality has long been debated.
In response to the church's planned protest, Whitman teachers spent recent weeks teaching students about the man their school was named after. English teachers focused on Whitman's poetry, while history teachers taught about civil disobedience and non-violence, two ideas espoused by Whitman.
In the month since the church announced the protest, three Whitman sophomores — Amar Mukunda, Ryan Hauck and Sahil Ansari — organized a group of more than 650 students in a Facebook group, and created and sold T-shirts with Whitman's face on them for students to wear during the protest.
"We're just here to say that this is not right, and to preach tolerance and respect," said Mukunda, 16, of Bethesda. "You can see by the numbers that people support tolerance."
In contrast to the more than 500 students who showed up for the counter-protest, seven members of the church protested across Whittier Boulevard from the students. Three of the protesters were elementary-school-aged children.
The church members held signs with gay epithets and sang "Filthy brats, God hates you," to the tune of John Denver's "Country Roads, Take Me Home."
"This school needs to see and hear this message," said Rebekah Phelps-Davis, 48, of Topeka, Kan. "… we go where the message needs to be heard."
More than 40 police officers were on hand, including five on horseback. There were no injuries or arrests at the protest, according to Montgomery County Police Second District Commander Capt. Russ Hamill.
Don Patera, an 18-year-old Whitman senior, said the church's claims are "ridiculous."
"God loves us all," he said. "And I think we've proved that, because despite all our differences we're showing a united front against this group. It's just amazing."