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Dave Roepke, Published February 17 2011

Church scraps protest of play

A Kansas church known for strident anti-gay views will not protest a play in Fargo on Sunday, after all.

Officials from Westboro Baptist Church told Fargo police Wednesday morning that its members won’t protest a Fargo South High School production of “The Laramie Project,” Lt. Joe Anderson stated in a news release.

Westboro had announced last week it planned to protest the play, which is about a gay University of Wyoming student murdered in 1998.

“The Laramie Project” has been a common target for Westboro recently, but the church got a heads up from an unlikely source about Fargo South’s production.

At least two members of the play’s cast posted messages on Facebook saying they sent Westboro e-mails using fake names claiming to be concerned about the play and suggesting it be picketed, said Cindy Gomez, a mother of one of the cast members.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, a church spokeswoman, said in an e-mail message that at least three people who said they were connected to South High School contacted Westboro about the production – which is still set to be performed Friday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m.

Rick Buresh, superintendent of Fargo schools, said the e-mails were “perhaps naïve” and “ill-advised.”

Buresh said that while the district doesn’t disclose the discipline of its students, “Clearly, the kids and their parents were communicated with and appropriate responses were made.”

Urging Westboro to protest is “certainly not something we would have encouraged,” Buresh said.

Gomez’s daughter, Sarah Siqueiros, was threatened and was offended that fellow members of the cast would reach out to Westboro, her mother said Wednesday.

Siqueiros, who is bisexual, was bullied online for calling attention to the Facebook posts, and other cast members passed it off as harmless, Gomez said.

“They act like they invited Santa Claus to town, not a hate group,” she said.

A message left for Gwen Stark, the director of the play, wasn’t returned. A request seeking comment from the cast members who e-mailed the church passed along by a friend wasn’t returned.

Plans for a protest countering Westboro’s picketing quickly emerged last week after the supposed intentions of the church were publicized.

Kelsey Hedman, an organizer of the counterprotest, said she was “really, really upset” to learn some in the cast had expressed the fake outrage to Westboro. She said one cast member not involved in contacting the church had apologized to her, while others insisted it was meant as a joke.

“I don’t see how this could be a joke,” said Hedman, a 2010 South High graduate. “This play is all about diversity and acceptance. I think if you’re going to be in that show, it’s something you should hold closely and value.”

Hedman said the protest she’d planned is still on, though refashioned as a celebration of diversity.

Anderson said police urge any demonstrators present on Sunday to stay on public sidewalks, avoid blocking pedestrian traffic and not use any sort of voice amplification.

Hedman said she thinks the show is now unfortunately blanketed with a “huge dark shadow.”

“I think the play still deserves to be seen. I think that’s sad,” Hedman said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535