AIKEN --- Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church will trade an hour of talk with radio host Austin Rhodes in exchange for not attending Thursday's funeral services of Staff Sgt. Willie J. Harley Jr.
Rhodes e-mailed a request to the church to stay away from services in exchange for an unedited hour to broadcast their message. The church announced picket plans Monday by press release.
Harley, 48, was killed Oct. 1 in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device. The church said they would also protest the funeral of fellow guardsman, Spc. Luther Rabon, 32, of Lexington County. S.C., was also killed during the attack. The two men were the first from the National Guard's 1221st Engineering Clearance Company, based in Graniteville and Batesburg, to be killed.
Member Shirley Phelps-Roper said she would speak with Rhodes by phone from 5-6 p.m. on Wednesday on Newstalk 580 WGAC. Rhodes said the church also wanted to save the expense of driving to South Carolina.
In an e-mail to The Augusta Chronicle, Phelps-Roper said, "We do this from time to time, and probably over the years, I can think of at least a dozen times we have done this. We are not interested in getting in people's grills for the sake of getting in their grills. We are interested in saying the words that are necessary at this hour with plain speech and boldness. This nation is facing her imminent destruction from the hand of the God that she flips off on a daily basis with her rebellious disobedience and filthy manner of life and that matter of teaching their children that God is a big fat liar."
Rhodes said by phone on Tuesday afternoon that he's "190 percent opposed to what they do," and it would be one of the most difficult subjects he's ever discussed on air.
The church -- which has become known for its protests of military funerals, claiming soldiers' deaths are a sign from God because gays can serve in the military if they don't reveal their sexual orientation -- also attempted to protest the funeral of Cpl. Matt Dillon, of Aiken, who was killed by an IED in Iraq on Dec. 11, 2007.
Dillon's parents, Neal and Lucy, told The Augusta Chronicle earlier this year that they didn't learn of the group's attempt to crash the funeral until after their son was buried.
According to the Dillons, a member of the Patriot Guard, veteran bikers who provide security for families during services, noticed three vans with Kansas license plates headed toward the area the day of Matt's funeral. The biker called officials in Aiken suggesting a time they might be able to intercept the group. As the van crossed the Savannah River into South Carolina, they were pulled over by law enforcement at the rest stop for a "safety check," which took three hours to complete.
Patriot Guard posted on its Web site today that it would be present at both Harley and Rabon's funerals.