WASHINGTON – As throngs came to the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery to honor the fallen on Memorial Day, a handful of protesters from an anti-gay group stood across a four-lane highway from a conservative group supporting the troops.
The two groups, separated by a line of police cars, were faced off about 300 feet from the entrance to the cemetery. They held signs making competing arguments. But because of noise from approaching motorcycles and cars, they could not hear one another.
A small group of members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., who have been demonstrating around the country at military funerals, sang "God hates America" to the tune of "God Bless America" and held signs that read "God is America's terror", "Thank God for dead soldiers", "You're going to hell", and "Bush killed them."
Across the street, a handful of people from the conservative group known as Free Republic held a large sign saying, "God bless our troops, defenders of freedom, American heroes." Other signs said, "God does love our defenders of freedom" and "This Memorial Day, thank a soldier for your freedom."
As people walked to the cemetery past the Westboro church group, many looked at them and scowled and several shouted insults.
A Marine lance corporal in uniform, passing by on the sidewalk, suddenly lunged toward one of the church protesters. A policeman put his arm around the Marine and led him away before there was any physical contact.
"Shut your mouth," one woman yelled at them, and a man passing by said, "Read your Bible." A spokesman for Free Republic, Kristinn Taylor, said his group showed up to demonstrate because they knew the church group was coming. He said they have staged counter demonstrations on several occasions when Westboro protesters disrupted military funerals.
"They're out of line," Taylor said. "Their hateful message isn't welcome here. Many of us have loved ones buried here."
"We wanted to send a positive message of support for troops serving now and their families and those who made the ultimate sacrifice," he said.
Margie Phelps, spokeswoman for the Westboro church group, said the group was protesting because "Congress doesn't have the power and can't pass enough laws to stop the wrath of God" against homosexuals.
"America is doomed because she has institutionalized sin and exalted homosexuality," she said.
Many people in cars and on motorcycles honked and gave friendly waves to the Free Republic group as they drove by.
A passerby got close to one of the protesters and yelled, "Thank God for America." A policeman stepped between them and the incident ended.