The Westboro Baptist Church has joined neo-Nazis as groups that actively unite the people of Bozeman.
“The last time I spoke in a situation like this was five years ago when a handful of neo-Nazis came to town. Their enemy was people of color and Jews,” Beth Shalom Rabbi Ed Stafman said. “Any organization that claims God hates some particular group is not a religion and does not share our most fundamental spiritual understandings.”
The rabbi joined hundreds of local residents and Montana State University students who cheered speeches, danced to the Beatles and slurped ice cream Monday afternoon in a show of solidarity against the anti-homosexual message of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Stafman said 1,000 Bozemanites turned out five years ago at the neo-Nazi rally.
The same number may have turned out this year, but they were scattered between related events across town.
Organizer Jamie Greer said the Greater Gallatin Valley for Equality scheduled its rally and ice cream social to provide people with an alternative to the scheduled Westboro Church activities.
Greer estimated about 500 gathered on MSU's Centennial Mall at around 2 p.m. while another 300 were drawn to the spectacle of the Westboro Church that started near the “Noodle” sculpture at 2:30.
“We wanted to have a peaceful and productive response. It was important that everything that happened today reflects our values of dignity, fairness and security,” Greer said. “We really wanted to keep people away from the high school, which is why we had the ice cream social.”
The MSU rally featured speakers from veterans' groups, churches and the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered community.
A hush fell over the boisterous crowd as Army veteran and MSU junior Joe Schumacher asked for a moment of silence while he read the names of nine servicemen killed in action.
Schumacher said he was disgusted when he read those names along with the statement, “Thank God for nine more dead troops. We are praying for 9,000 more,” on the Westboro Church website.
“The WBC believes God is killing our troops because they fight for a country that condones and tolerates homosexuality,” Schumacher said. “I can't imagine being a loved one of these brave men and seeing WBC disrespect their memory in such a horrible manner.”
Alex Paterson, president of the MSU Queer-Straight Alliance, said he wanted to be a part of a world liberated from bigotry but that was maybe too optimistic.
“We see today that all-too-common rage and malice that fuels these seemingly inhumane figures — people who foster and thrive off hate; hate that is actually a disgusting disguise of the fear of things that they do not understand. Hate of the LGBT community.”
Montana's congressional delegation sent statements regarding the event.
Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester said WBC's messages of hatred and division have no place in Bozeman. Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines said the actions of the WBC were an affront to military members who have served and sacrificed their lives.
First Baptist Church and Bridger Community Ministries pastor Jay Smith assured the crowd that few Baptists and few Christians identify with the WBC.
“I'm not that kind of Baptist. I believe that faith, hope and love will save the world,” Smith said. “God does not hate fags — God hates hate. Religious people who seek to advance an agenda other than the love of God ticks God off.”
In the crowd, the Unitarians Universal of Bozeman held their church banner and a few wore yellow T-shirts proclaiming “Standing on the Side of Love.”
Unitarians Rev. Nina Grey said it was a Unitarian movement to support equality for all.
“We're standing on the side of LGBT, immigrants and whatever comes up that needs to be stood up for,” Grey said. “They call us ‘The Love People' at the rallies in Boston and D.C.”
A couple from Butte joined the crowd as it enjoyed ice cream at Cooper Park after the rally.
Gary Stallings and Rick Wagner, together for 24 years, have been plaintiffs in a lawsuit that challenged a recent amendment to the state constitution that prohibits same-sex marriage.
While they admit to being activists, they said they came to Bozeman for the party.
“It's amazing looking at these people. We're all different with nothing in common. But WBC comes here and everyone wants to party,” Stallings said. “We ought to like them for that.”