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Planned anti-gay picketing draws large counter-protest in Hastings

Youth and adults lined up on the sidewalk along the Hastings High School property Sunday afternoon to stand against Westboro Baptist Church's anti-homosexual message.

Hundreds of people lined sidewalks outside Hastings High School Sunday afternoon with signs and a message: Hastings and Minnesota do not tolerate hate.

The gathering was a counter-protest organized in response to information indicating that Westboro Baptist Church members planned to picket a Hastings High School theater production. The church protest never took place.

Westboro Baptist Church, led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, is a Topeka, Kan.-based congregation known nationwide for public protests of homosexuality.

According to the church's website, "WBC engages in daily peaceful sidewalk demonstrations opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth. We display large, colorful signs containing Bible words and sentiments, including: GOD HATES FAGS..."

Westboro Baptist Church had indicated it would protest the school's winter play, "The Laramie Project," a collection of interviews conducted in Laramie, Wyo., where Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die. The story attracted national media attention, and was characterized as a hate crime against Shepard, who was a homosexual.

Wendy Leigh of Impact-Twin Cities was one of the organizers of the counter-protest. A national and global activist, Leigh and others sent out more than 3,500 invitations though Facebook to people, asking them to stand up against WBC. A couple hundred people confirmed their attendance, she said.

One of the counter-protesters saw a Westboro Baptist Church van in Hastings Saturday, Leigh said. It was described as a van with Kansas plates and messages consistent with the church's position written on the sides.

The church's protest was scheduled from 1:15 p.m. to 2 p.m. But by 2 p.m. there still had been no sign of the organization at the high school.