SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - A hate group has added Lake Tahoe to its list, as well as its itinerary.
Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church has targeted March 19 to demonstrate at Lake Tahoe Community College, which is presenting "The Laramie Project," a docu-drama about a 1998 hate-crime murder.
The Westboro Baptist Church claims on its Web site to have demonstrated 42,821 times since 1991. It is opposed to just about everything, especially gays, Jews and President Obama, who it calls "the anti-Christ."
"They even hate Australia," said Susan Boulanger, LTCC's first-year theater director.
The group has been most notable in recent years for demonstrating at United States military funerals.
"Their view is God hates America and that's why there is this war," Boulanger said.
Westboro's potential appearance enraged veteran and LTCC student Georges Laverdet, who has placed fliers throughout campus.
"I'd really like to make an appeal to the veterans of the community," he said. "I encourage people to click on their Web site, do their own investigation, and come to their own conclusions. The main issue I have with them is they violate the sanctity of funerals. I encourage anybody who's been a victim to fight these people."
A fight is exactly what Phelps' group wants, says LTCC President Paul Killpatrick.
"I understand that they are really litigious and they really go out to sue people," Killpatrick said. "They have a travel budget of about $200,000 and they have their own legal firm to handle these kinds of lawsuits and come with video cameras to show their view of what happened."
Lt. David Stevenson of the South Lake Tahoe Police Department offered advice: "Don't get sucked into that trap. It's that simple. Don't get physical with them, period. If they create a disturbance and we're not there, call us."
Student government members were told by Killpatrick last week the hate group could be paying a visit. Many students are anticipating a large counter-protest.
"Every time I hear about someone protesting their protest, I don't encourage that because it stoops down to their level," said Bryan Swartout, an Associated Student Council member. "The best way to get back at them is have many people show up and not say anything but walk in with their heads held high."
Matt Mason, who has relatives in the military serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he probably would become violent if a family member was killed and Westboro demonstrated at the funeral. Mason is a card dealer at a Stateline casino who admits he initially felt trepidation about an annual event for homosexuals.
"I had a problem dealing with Gay and Lesbian Week the first time they came but I discovered they're great people," Mason said. "They're hard working and they want the same things we want. Good roads, good schools. They're very decent folks. I'm offended by the fact this hate group is coming to our town to protest."
Boulanger said a group of "Fred Phelps wannabees" protested when she presented "The Laramie Project" in Yorktown, Penn. She and others countered by gathering across the street and sang "Amazing Grace." But she said it would have been better to have not engaged the hate group at all.
"The Laramie Project" will be followed by group discussions headed by Tahoe church leaders, medical professionals and city government representatives. Boulanger said an appearance by the hate group could enhance the presentation.
"I think it would be a fantastic opportunity for dialogue here," she said. "If they were to show up, then people would go, 'Wow, this stuff really does happen.' It speaks to a rational human being to say, the extremism that they represent, is that what we really want in our community?"
"I look at everything as being a teachable moment," he said. "I think this is a teachable moment and what better place to have it than a college?"