Members of the homophobic group planning to protest a performance of the theatre work The Laramie Project on November 28 should be arrested under hate-crime legislation if they display anti-gay banners, according to Brian Yuen, a Bell Alliance lawyer who’s co-chair of the Gay and Lesbian Business Association of B.C.
The Topeka, Kansas–based Westboro Baptist Church, led by Fred Phelps, is best known for disrupting gay-pride events and funerals of slain American soldiers. A “picket schedule” on its Web site indicates members plan to demonstrate at the Havana Café at 7 p.m. on November 28; Fighting Chance Productions will be staging The Laramie Project at the Commercial Drive venue from November 26 to December 6. The play explores the aftermath of the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard and features Phelps, who protested at Shepard’s funeral, as a character.
When picketing, the Westboro Baptist Church’s members are known to display banners reading “God Hates Fags” and other offensive slogans. “If those are the exact words that they’re putting up on banners, then I would say it may constitute a hate crime,” said Yuen, “and if it offends any of the provisions in the Criminal Code of Canada, I would hope to see law-enforcement agents lay charges.”
Section 319 of the Criminal Code states that anyone who “willfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group is guilty of (a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or (b) an offence punishable on summary conviction”.
Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Tim Fanning said a hate-crime charge could be “a possibility”, but would not speculate further. “We have to kind of wait and see if they get through the border and if they show up and what they show up with,” he said, adding that the VPD has an operational plan to deal with the protesters should they arrive.
Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson Shakila Manzoor would not comment on any specific cases or individuals, but said, “When an officer”¦feels that an individual is coming into the country to incite hate, they may be deemed inadmissible and refused entry.”
This past August, members of the Westboro Baptist Church successfully entered Canada and went to Winnipeg to picket the funeral of Tim McLean, who was beheaded onboard a Greyhound bus, but called off their protest due to safety concerns.
An anti-hate rally scheduled for November 28 at 5 p.m. in Grandview Park will take place whether or not Phelps’s group shows up, said Ryan Mooney, artistic director of Fighting Chance Productions. A Facebook group, “I support keeping the Westboro Baptist Church out of Vancouver”, had more than 2,500 members as of November 17, and a Facebook event, “Anti-hate rally in support of The Laramie Project”, had 565 people listed as confirmed and 768 maybe attending.