Two Destin residents are taking the fight against hatred into the front yard of the Westboro Baptist Church.
As part of an anti-bullying campaign, Aaron Jackson and Davis Hammet joined other members of Planting Peace Tuesday morning painting the home they own across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church in the rainbow colors of the gay pride flag.
"The concept is to show that where there is hate, there is also love," said Jackson, the founder of Planting Peace, a progressive nonprofit organization based in Destin that aims to “spread peace in a hurting world.” “There is no better place to counterbalance hate than at the Westboro Baptist Church."
They call the home Equality House and say the house “will stand as a visual reminder of our commitment, as global citizens, to equality for all.”
"This home, beyond the powerful imagery of what it represents, is also going to be used as a place for our volunteers to live in," he said. "We are going to spread the word of the 'silent genocide' affecting our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population.”
According to records from the Shawnee County, Kansas, property appraiser, the home is located just a short walk down the street from the Westboro Baptist Church.
The church was founded in 1955 by Pastor Fred Phelps, according to its website, and "engages in daily peaceful sidewalk demonstrations opposing the homosexual lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth.” The group has been known to picket high-profile funerals around the nation with incendiary signs deriding gays or with slogans like “God Hates America.”
Steve Drain, a devout follower of the Westboro Baptist Church, told The Log Tuesday morning that Planting Peace's decision to paint the house the colors of the gay pride flag was only a story because of where it's located.
"It's not really that bold of a move at all," he said. "I love that house because it represents and sheds light on our message that God hates fags."
Drain said that the national media attention to this project "tells me that people are hearing our message."
"The people in that house across the street are accepting sin," he added. "People want to tout what they are doing as an innocent lifestyle…"
The city of Destin had a near brush with the Westboro Baptist Church back in 2011, as the church had planned to protest at the funeral services of a Niceville family that was killed in a plane crash. Ultimately, the church accepted airtime on a Panama City radio station instead of protesting at the Teutenberg family memorial.
The Rainbow/Destin connection
Growing up in Destin, Davis Hammet knew he wasn’t a good fit for a traditional 9 to 5 job, but he never envisioned he would be part of a protest with national implications.
"Since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to do some type of activism," he said. "I didn't know it would be this, though."
Hammet said the painting of the house in Topeka comes at a very important time for civil rights, as the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on California's Proposition 8, which deals with the state's ban on same-sex marriages, and the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines the word marriage as the union between one man and one woman for federal purposes.
For Jackson, equality is a fight that he and his organization are more than willing to take up.
"It's estimated that 4,000 LGBT people commit suicide each year," he said. "There is a message out there that more or less says that what you are on the inside is wrong and unacceptable. If I was a young, gay teenager, I couldn't imagine how hard it would be to hear that message all the time."
Now living just steps away from the church, Jackson told The Log it's not uncommon to run into members of the Westboro church while out and about in the community. He said he has come across Shirley Phelps-Roper, a spokeswoman for the church, while out on a morning run.
"They are not violent people," Jackson said. "It's just their messages and beliefs that are vulgar and inappropriate."
The church itself has also become a place for visitors to stop and take pictures, Jackson said, adding that at least two to five times a day, cars will stop in front of the church and snap photos in a variety of poses and with a variety of gestures.
‘A friendly protest’
While the painting is still under way, Jackson said his organization has already purchased and installed an industrial-sized flag pole in the front yard of the home, which will be used to "proudly and appropriately" display the flags of the United States of America and the gay pride flag.
"It looks like something that should be at the U.N., not in a residential neighborhood," he said.
When the flag pole was installed, Jackson said members of the church would pass by and take pictures.
"I don't know what they know over there, but I'm sure they know something's up," he said.
As it stands now, Jackson said the Westboro church is hanging the same flags, but they are positioned upside down with the rainbow flag above the American flag.
"That's a big flag no-no," Jackson said.
Despite Planting Peace's bold move, Jackson said he is not nervous about the church's reaction.
"This is just a friendly protest," he said. "We're promoting equality and helping to sustain anti-bullying campaigns that are already in place."
Learn more about the project or contribute at www.crowdrise.com/plantingpeace/fundraiser/destinriseup
To learn more about the equality house visit http://www.plantingpeace.org/equality.htm
News of the Destin-based Planting Peace's Equality House has spread around the web. Here are some of the variations from around the web.