FORT PIERCE - Counter-demonstrators will appear in response to an anti-gay group that plans to exercise its First Amendment rights by picketing the funeral of a Port St. Lucie soldier Friday.
Port St. Lucie resident Matthew Olivo formed an informal group to counter a demonstration by fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., at the funeral of U.S. Army Spc. Jordan Christopher Schumann, 24.
Schumann died July 5 in the Paktia province of Afghanistan when a vehicle he and two other soldiers — Staff Sgt. Joshua A. Throckmorton, 28, of Battle Creek, Mich., and Spc. Preston J. Suter, 22, of Sandy, Utah — were riding in drove over a roadside bomb.
Schumann's visitation will be 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday and the funeral at 7 p.m. Friday at Westside Baptist Church, 3361 S. Jenkins Road in Fort Pierce.
The Kansas group has protested at the funeral of fallen soldiers across the country because it claims their deaths is God's way of punishing the country for its tolerance of homosexuality.
"I respect the church's right for free speech but not at the expense of the family," said Olivo, who doesn't know the Schumann family. "At least where I am around in this city, they're not going to showboat in front of the cameras."
Pastor Bryan Longworth, of Covenant Tabernacle Church in Port St. Lucie, learned of the counterprotests and sent an email to 3,000 people in his address book asking they attend to show their support of the soldier's family.
Longworth, a conservative pastor, said Westboro's political and controversial messages is disrespectful and should not be discussed at funerals for soldiers.
"The fact is that this young man died so that they can have that right," he said.
Also planning to attend are members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a national group that attends soldiers' funerals, at the request of the family, to block out the Kansas protesters' signs such as, "Thank God for IEDs," and "Thank God for dead soldiers."
Leaders of the Patriot Guard Riders on Wednesday declined to comment, saying they didn't want to give attention to the Westboro group.
Olivo expects hundreds of people will attend the counterprotest and encouraged the public to bring flags and other patriotic symbols to shield the family from the church group's signs. However, the public is asked not to engage the Westboro protestors.
"We're emphasizing a peaceful assembly," Olivo said. "We don't want anyone getting into trouble over this."
St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office deputies will be at the funeral location to assist with escorting the Schumann family, Chief Deputy Garry Wilson said. However, he said the office hasn't had any contact with Westboro leaders asking for protection.
"We will do whatever we have to do to make sure the service is peaceful," Wilson said.
Church member Fred Phelps Jr, the eldest son of the church's leader Pastor Fred Phelps Sr., said the group plans to attend Friday's funeral service.
"The U.S. Supreme Court said that what we do is constitutional," he said.
However, Olivo said the protests should not be about politics but respect to fallen soldiers.
"I just think that someone who fought and died for our freedoms should be buried with the dignity they deserve," he said.
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