During his Oscar speech Sunday night Best Actor winner Sean Penn attacked supporters of last November’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage in California: “For those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight,” he 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 watching on television, or even sitting in the Kodak Theater, may have known what signs of hatred Penn 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. 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 Sunday Oscar activities by limbering up at Echo Park’s Angelus Temple. Those arriving for 10 a.m. services were met by a half-dozen or more Phelps followers on Glendale Boulevard. Among the provocative signs they held was the old standby “USA=Fags=Hell,” along with more topical placards, like the one featuring a photo of Barack Obama — with ram’s horns sprouting from the president’s temples — proclaiming, “Obama AntiChrist.” One true believer, with the Oscars in mind, held a sign reading “Heath in Hell.”
Angelus Temple congregants, members of the Dream Center urban ministry, stared at the protesters in bewilderment as the Center’s crossing guards urged people to avoid the group. “Why are you picketing?” a Westboro man was asked as his group prepared to leave.
“We do this every Sunday,” he replied, 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.
“They’re 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.
In the Temple, the Dream Center church began its service with 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 30s, chose to look on the brighter side, introducing his ministry’s new publicists from PR giant Rogers & Cowan, while urging worshipers 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 before.”
By then the Westboro church folks were long gone, preparing for their big night and the moment they briefly caught Sean Penn’s eye.