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Church group to protest Pitt

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published: Tue, 18 Mar, 2003

When it comes to remembering the life and work of Fred Rogers, not everybody agrees that he helped make it a "beautiful day in the neighborhood."

Rogers, who died of stomach cancer at age 74 last month, has been honored with a U.S. Senate resolution. However, the host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," has also been made the object of scorn by an anti-homosexual church group that plans to picket several Pittsburgh organizations next month, including Pitt's Graduate School of Child Development and the Sixth Presbyterian Church, for their association with him.

On March 5, The U.S. Senate unanimously passed S.Con. Resolution 16 to commemorate the life of Fred Rogers. Erica Clayton Wright, communications director for Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum explained that a Senate resolution is essentially a recognition of a person's achievements, in this case Fred Rogers' commitment to children and his show. Santorum wrote the resolution and it was co-sponsored by fellow Pennsylvanian Sen. Arlen Specter.

"Through his spirituality and placid nature, Mr. Rogers was able to reach out to our nation's children and encourage each of them to understand the important role they play in their communities and as part of their families," Santorum said. "More importantly, he did not shy away from dealing with difficult issues of death and divorce but rather encouraged children to express their emotions in a healthy, constructive manner, often providing a simple answer to life's hardships."

Although the U.S. Senate chose to honor Rogers for his work in children's television, the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., says they will protest his activities by also picketing the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, PBS, and WQED TV Pittsburgh on April 13 and 14.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, the attorney for the Westboro Baptist Church, explained that Rogers, as a Presbyterian minister with a television program, had a responsibility to comment on the issue. By not doing so, she explained that he was helping to perpetuate homosexuality, which the group says falls into the category of "whoremongery and adultery, which will damn the soul forever in hell." She added that the support some Americans have given to homosexuals has been the reason behind horrible tragedies including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the crash of the NASA shuttle Colombia, and the nightclub fire in Rhode Island.

"You don't get to pretend to decide what form God takes," Phelps-Roper said. "He's the God who could have stopped the shuttle crash, the nightclub fire, but instead he sent those things. This country has forgotten God and effectively flipped him off, and Fred Rogers is in part responsible."

The Westboro Baptist Church, led by Pastor Fred Phelps, is known nationwide for its protests against homosexuality. The group also picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was murdered in 1998. According to their Web site, the church has participated in more than 22,000 anti-homosexual demonstrations during the last 12 years.

Several have begun planning for a potential visit from the Westboro Baptist Church protesters. Pitt's Rainbow Alliance has not yet developed a formal response, but they may hold a fundraiser while the church is on campus, according to Rainbow Alliance President Josh Ferris. He also added that the Westboro Baptist Church has actually heavily supported Pitt for not providing domestic partner benefits.

"The church's main goal is getting their face in the media," Ferris said. "Fred Rogers has never been an enemy to the gay and lesbian community. He has never been an outright advocate either, but for people like Fred Phelps, it's black and white."

Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Robert Hill and WQED TV representatives would not comment on the issue.

The Sixth Presbyterian Church, where Fred Rogers was an active member and Bible student and where his wife, Joanne, still attends religious services, is also preparing for a possible visit from the protesters. The Sixth Presbyterian Church is one of roughly 125 Presbyterian churches across the United States that openly welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual members.

"This man has a habit of causing a stir and then not showing up," John McCall, pastor of Sixth Presbyterian Church, said in reference to Fred Phelps. "If they show up, we've been advised just to ignore them."

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Director of Seminary Relations Lisa Dormire said that the seminary will allow the Westboro Baptist Church to protest as long as it is a peaceful protest, though the seminary wouldn't seek any particular interaction with the protesters.

"Fred Rogers, class of 1962, is one of our most celebrated graduates and has had a distinguished ministry to children in the United States and around the world," Dormire said on behalf of the seminary. "We are proud to claim him as one of our graduates."

Speaking personally, Dormire added, "I saw reflected in Fred Rogers' Ministry an embodiment of Christ's ministry of love and acceptance that was inclusive of all of God's creation."

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