CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than 300 men, women and children gathered in front of the state Capitol Thursday afternoon to counter a few members of a fringe church that was holding a demonstration there.
The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the state AFL-CIO, churches and other religious groups, veterans' groups and community organizations organized the gathering to respond to the demonstrators from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan.
The tiny sect, unaffiliated with any other church, routinely sends pickets across the country to carry hateful signs. They parade in front of synagogues, churches, schools, funerals for dead soldiers and other people, including victims of fires, car accidents and, most recently, coal mine disasters.
They say God intentionally killed those people because the United States is an immoral country.
Among the counter-demonstrators at the state Capitol on Thursday was Tom Burgt, a retired U.S. Army sergeant who has helped organize Lest We Forget, a family and military group that supports soldiers returning from war.
"We came here to support troops and to see the 'flash mob' dancers," said Burgt, referring to residents who organized a dance as part of the counter-demonstration. "It is more important to bring attention to PTSD [post-traumatic stress syndrome] and veterans' issues than any of this stupidity."
"I think it is amazing the whole community came out for this," said Linda Sadero, who works with veterans through her group, Helping Appalachian Returning Troops, or HART.
Only six Westboro pickets showed up in front of the Capitol, including two men, one woman and three young children. They held up signs proclaiming: "America Is Doomed," "Thank God for Dead Miners," "God Hates Your Tears," "God Hates West Virginia" and "God Hates You."
Local people peacefully overwhelmed the Westboro group. They carried their own signs, including: "I Love Everyone" and "God Bless Our Troops and Veterans."
Others signs had humorous messages: "This is a Sign" and "God Hates Signs."
"We are sending a strong message that we are a justice-loving people in West Virginia, ready to move for positive change," Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of the abortion rights group West Virginia Free.
The Rev. Mel Hoover, a minister at Charleston's Unitarian Universalist Congregation, urged people to pray for the families of the miners killed in Monday's explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal, Raleigh County.
Hoover told ralliers Thursday to remember the famous quote that Mother Jones, the legendary coal miners' organizer, put in her 1925 autobiography: "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."
Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjny...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.