Westboro Baptist Church demonstrates at West Point Public Schools over teacher's firing

Staff writers

As the fog rose from the lawns of the homes surrounding West Point High School Tuesday, protesters from Westboro Baptist Church demonstrated on the sidewalks to voice their opposition to the school division’s decision to fire a teacher for not using a transgender student’s preferred pronoun, as well as insubordination.

Six protesters from the Topeka, Kansas-based Christian-fundamentalist church held signs that warned any divergence from the Bible and God’s word would bring his wrath.

“It’s contrary to the word of God...God will not give America a pass when he destroyed Sodom,” said Shirley Phelps-Roper, a protester and former spokeswoman for the church .

Former French teacher Peter Vlaming was fired for insubordination after a unanimous decision by West Point School Board at a Dec. 6, 2018, hearing. Vlaming refused to comply with multiple administrators’ requests to address the student by his preferred pronoun, according to school officials at the public hearing.

Vlaming had been on administrative leave since Oct. 31, 2018, for refusing to use the ninth-grade transgender student’s preferred pronoun, citing his own religious beliefs.

The demonstration was small, only six protesters. Law enforcement from the Virginia State Police, King William Sheriff’s Office and West Point Police Department outnumbered the group more than 3 to 1, with 19 sworn officers at the schools to keep the peace, according to West Point Police Department Chief Tim Sawyer.

Police officers monitored the roadways, the protest and controlled the intersection of Thompson Avenue and Mattaponi Avenue as demonstrators picketed and sang songs in favor of a more foundational view of Christianity in American society.

Buses blocked entrances to the schools, as the division was on a two-hour delay to “ensure all students have a safe and orderly start” to their school day, Superintendent Laura Abel said in an email.

On March 1, the school division and West Point police sent a joint email to parents that protesters had targeted the school division for a demonstration. The statement did not specify the reason for the protest.

Mateo Gasparotto and Meredith Mason, legal observers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said they were tracking the protest from West Point to its final destination in Richmond to ensure all protesters and counter-protesters’ right to demonstrate was respected.

The counter protest was also small, with a total of four on hand.

Thom Rohde, West Point resident and father of student protest organizer Forrest Rohde, said he doesn’t like the hateful message the church sends out. He stood as a counter protester to the church and engaged with its members.

“I just had to come out and at least try to talk to them,” Thom Rohde said. “I was trying to figure out why they hate so much. I was telling them ‘God is not hate, God loves.’

“That’s the whole purpose of God, is for love.”

Forrest Rohde led a protest at the middle and high schools the day after the School Board fired Vlaming.

“(Westboro Baptist is) a terrible group, we just wanted Mr. Vlaming’s rights recognized,” Forrest Rohde said.

Counter protester and resident Maria Roco, whose son is a sophomore at West Point High said “there is no place for hate here.”

Maria Robins, 37, of West Point, didn’t want to protest as much as she wanted to voice her support for the school system and its students. She unfurled a blanket and poured herself a cup of coffee near the protesters to signal they were of no concern.

“For me it’s an easy choice. Do you stand with that (the Westboro Baptist Church) or not,” Robins said. “This was an opportunity for everybody to heal. That image of hate and intolerance is not who we are.”

In an email statement, Peter Vlaming and his attorney Shawn Voyles said they “condemn the obnoxious, hate-filled messages spread by the Westboro Baptist Church.”

“My client loves each and every one of his students,” Voyles said in the email. “My client is continuing to evaluate his legal options regarding his unlawful termination.”

Westboro protesters left the area at about 7:30 a.m. and headed to Richmond, where the group is scheduled to protest at the Capitol and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at srobertsjr@vagazette.com and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.

Luck can be reached at 757-291-2038, aluck@tidewaterreview.com or @ashleyrluck on Twitter

Copyright © 2019, The Virginia Gazette