Protesters to talk on radio

Westboro Baptist forgoes funeral picket to accept WGAC offer
In lieu of protesting near Staff Sgt. Willie Harley Jr.'s funeral Thursday, a member of Westboro Baptist Chuch, in Topeka, Kan., will speak with Austin Rhodes today on WGAC. Church members say God is punishing the U.S. for homosexuality and abortions by allowing service members to die.

AIKEN --- Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church will accept an hour of radio talk rather than attend Thursday's funeral for Staff Sgt. Willie J. Harley Jr., of Aiken.

Radio host Austin Rhodes, of WGAC-AM (580) offered the Topeka church an hour of unedited broadcast time during his show today if it would agree not to attend Harley's services. The church had announced its plans to picket the funeral in a news release Monday.

The church has become known for its protests of military funerals, expressing its view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit against the church that explored the limits of the First Amendment and whether families' emotional pain trumps the protesters' free-speech rights.

Harley, 48, was killed Oct. 1 in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device.

The church said it would continue with plans to demonstrate at the funeral of Harley's fellow guardsman, Spc. Luther Rabon, 32, of Lexington County. S.C., who also was killed in 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.

Westboro member Shirley Phelps-Roper said by e-mail Tuesday that when someone makes the offer of on-air time, the church will take it.

"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," she wrote in her e-mail. "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 Tuesday that he is "190 percent opposed to what they do" and it would be one of the most difficult subjects he has ever discussed on the air. Rhodes also said Phelps-Roper would be interviewed by phone because the group wanted to save the cost of a trip to South Carolina.

The interview will air from 5-6 p.m. today.

The group's attempts to interfere with services disturbs Harley's fellow guardsmen and friends.

Darnell Pixley, who spent 24 years in the same battalion as Harley, served a tour in Iraq with both Harley and Marine Cpl. Matt Dillon, who was killed by an IED in December 2007.

Pixley said that he hasn't paid the church much attention in the past because he never understood its purpose and that it only degraded a moment that was meant to be sacred.

"I always said to myself: 'People back home are going to support us. Even if they don't support the war, they support the men and women in the military,' " he said. "Something like this just mocks that individual. They never would have signed up for the military if they weren't willing to die doing something they loved."

Westboro Baptist members attempted to protest Dillon's funeral in 2007 but were thwarted by police, according to information relayed by Dillon's family.

Dillon's parents, Neal and Lucy, told The Augusta Chronicle this year that they didn't learn of the group's attempt to crash the funeral until after their son was buried.

The Dillons said they were told that a member of the Patriot Guard, motorcycle riders who provide security for families, noticed three vans with Kansas license plates headed toward the area. The biker called officials in Aiken, suggesting a time they might be able to intercept the group. As the vans 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 riders said that they would be present at both Harley's and Rabon's funerals at the request of family members.

Reach Julia Sellers at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or julia.sellers@augustachronicle.com.

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Harley services

VISITATION

When: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. today

Where: Simmons Funeral Home, 13188 Main St., Williston, S.C.

When: 5-8 p.m. today

Where: Cumberland AME Church, 111 Kershaw St., Aiken

FUNERAL

When: 1 p.m. Thursday

Where: Cedar Creek Church, Banks Mill Road, Aiken

Call Simmons Funeral Home at (803) 266-7808 for information.

Westboro Church's news release (.pdf)