During his Oscar speech for winning the Best Actor award for Milk, Sean Penn pointedly attacked supporters of last November's victorious Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage in California:

“For those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight,” Penn said, “I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame . . .”

Few people watching him on television (or, possibly, even those sitting in the Oscar's Kodak Theater) may have known what Penn's reference to those signs of hatred meant. Perhaps they hadn't seen Fall from Grace, a 2007 documentary profiling the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church. These are the people who carry “God Hates Fags” signs and who celebrated the gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard, along  with the World Trade Center attacks. (“Thank God for 9/11” is another of their classic signs.) Phelps' church keeps in shape (and in the public eye) by picketing the funerals of  American war dead, as well as memorials for the Buffalo airline-crash victims. To Phelps and his followers, America is Satan's subdivision, a coast to coast Sodom and Gomorrah of 300 million souls who are all but lost to homosexuality.

The Westboros began their Oscar activities last Sunday by limbering

up at a few churches in the morning. Members of Echo Park's Angelus

Temple arriving for 10 a.m. services were met by a about half a dozen

or more Phelps followers, who held provocative signs across the street

on Glendale Boulevard. There were old standbys such as “USA=Fags=Hell,”

along with more topical placards, like the one featuring a photo of

Barack Obama — albeit with ram's horns sprouting from the president's

temples — proclaiming, “Obama AntiChrist.” One true believer, with

that day's main event in mind, held one reading “Heath in  Hell.”


group was in high spirits and resembled a couple of families spending

time at a softball game. The Angelus Temple congregants, who are

members of the “urban ministry” known as the Dream Center, stared at

them in bewilderment as the Center's crossing guards urged people to

avoid the protesters. A few police officers had shown up but now,

sensing no imminent danger, left the scene.

“Why are you picketing?” a man was asked as his group prepared to leave.


do this every Sunday,” he replied matter-of-factly, tucking away some

of the placards in a vinyl portfolio. He may as well have said that he

washes his car or cuts the grass on this day every week.


Catholic,” said a young boy holding an “Obama AntiChrist” sign. His

father corrected him about Angelus Temple, once the home of evangelist

Aimee Semple McPherson. The confusion was understandable, though, given

that another squad of Westboro members was at that moment picketing Our

Lady of the Angels Cathedral about a mile away.

Inside the Temple, the Dream Center church began its service with a performance of 20 minutes of rock, techno and rap music.

“There's no protest in the House of the Lord, know what I'm sayin'?” a young MC yelled to the crowd, which roared back.


Pastor Matthew Barnett made light references to the protest, although

he could be forgiven for taking personally a sign that said “Your

Pastor Is a Whore.” Barnett, a youthful man in his early 30s, chose to

look on the brighter side of things, introducing his ministry's new

publicists from PR giant Rogers & Cowan, while urging worshippers

to download the songs of a visiting Christian rapper, in order to pump

up his iTunes chart standing — “even if you've never heard a rap song


By then the Westboro church folks were long gone, preparing for their

big night and the moment they briefly caught Sean Penn's eye.

(Photos by Steven Mikulan)

LA Weekly