BEL AIR, Md. – Four strangers from the Topeka, Kan., Westboro Baptist Church joined the family, friends and fellow Marines who flocked to Oak Grove Baptist Church Friday to mourn Marine Cpl. Jennifer Marie Parcell, 20, killed the week before by a suicide bomber while serving at a military checkpoint in Anbar province, Iraq.
The strangers were from a nationally known protest group that deplores homosexuality — Fred Phelps, Jr., his wife, Betty Phelps, his sister, Abigail Phelps, and fellow church member Lauren Drain — and they carried signs bearing mottoes like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "You will eat your children," and "Soldiers Die, God Laughs."
Despite the unwelcome messages, the service proceeded without incident.
The preacher eulogized Parcell as a soldier for both her country and the Lord.
Her brother, Marine Cpl. Joseph Parcell, saw her as someone "who put a lot of people first, and I hardly ever heard her ask for something."
While her mother, Pam Parcell, told the congregation that her daughter had named her mother a "personal hero" on the Web site MySpace.
"She's my hero," she sobbed. "I loved her so much. She was my boo-girl."
The protesters gave ample notice that they were coming and were "very organized. We never had any problems with them at all," said Lt. John Krass of the Harford County Sheriff's Office.
The group has disrupted soldiers' funerals before, and notice of their possible attendance brought out the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of veterans, soldiers and civilians who often ride flag-bearing motorcycles accompanying funeral processions of soldiers killed in combat to shield the family from unwanted attention.
The Guard Riders created a human shield at Oak Grove Baptist Church's entrances so that the Parcell family could come and go.
Westboro Baptist Church is a religious group of about 71 members not affiliated with any other Baptist church, said attorney and mother of 11, Shirley Phelps-Rogers from Kansas.
The organization, led by Fred Phelps Sr., 87, operates multiple Web sites like GodHatesFags.com and GodHatesAmerica.com, and has been known in recent years to picket funerals for soldiers killed in combat as a way of denouncing U.S. society, which tolerates homosexuals.
Friday Fred Phelps Jr. carried signs saying "America is Doomed," "Fags Doom-nation," and his wife carried one that read, "God Hates Fag Enablers."
"The U.S. military is a fag-nation," Abigail Phelps said by phone following the funeral service. "When you go and sign up to serve in a military for a nation that says it's OK to be gay, you are serving, by the nature of it, you are in blatant defiance of God. You have declared War on God . . . I don't see how that's a hard connection to make. . . .All it would take is a few people to say 'We refuse.'"
America's soldiers and children are dying, Phelps said, because of a U.S. tolerance of homosexuality and other behaviors she sees as immoral.
"They say God bless America. They acknowledge that God has the power to bless a nation. He also has the power to curse a nation."
Asked why she had flown from Kansas to Maryland to protest at Parcell's funeral, Phelps said: "You know, there was a lot of media about that girl. And you know, the parents touted the fact that she was a gift, not a sacrifice . . . Those parents sent that child out to die. They sacrificed that child for a country that has turned its back on God, kicked God in the shin."
Southern Poverty Law Center has classified Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group, and the Anti-Defamation League keeps tabs on the organization.
Abigail Phelps said that the protesters plan another event at 10 a.m. Saturday in Cambridge outside the funeral of Jerome Robinson, 8, and Aaron Robinson, 12, who drowned in a pond Sunday after falling through ice.
The boys' father, Jerome Robinson, is an Army sergeant in Hawaii, and returned home for the funeral Monday, the Star-Democrat reported in an article apparently viewed by Phelps.
The Guard Riders were indifferent to the protesters, they said.
"They're insignificant," said Russell Burks, a Harford County Patriot Guard Ride Captain and chaplain, about the protesters.
"We don't pay any attention to them. It's mind over matter. We don't mind. So they don't matter. We don't argue with them. We don't talk to them. This young lady perished to give them the right to do what they're doing."
The Patriot Guard Riders were here simply to honor Jennifer Parcell, said Ride Captain, David Shea, who served in the Army for four years beginning in 1978 and has a son in the Navy who has deployed to Iraq twice. "To honor Jennifer and her family for the sacrifice she made."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.