Westboro has its say on radio

Staff Sgt. Willie James Harley will be buried at 1 p.m. today in Aiken.

AIKEN --- Friends and family of Staff Sgt. Willie J. Harley prepared for his visitation services Wednesday evening by ignoring the local radio broadcast of a group that planned to picket his funeral.

"I'm quite sure their only objective was to get their voices heard and they got that," said family friend Kenith Corley.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, agreed to an hour of unedited talk on Wednesday afternoon with radio host Austin Rhodes on WGAC-AM (580) in exchange for not picketing at Harley's funeral today.

The church has become known for pickets at military funerals to express their view that soldiers' deaths are God's punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.

The church announced plans to picket the funerals of Harley, 48, and Spc. Luther "Will" Rabon, 32, of Lexington County, S.C., on Monday. The men were killed Oct. 1 in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device.

On Wednesday's show, Phelps-Roper said the group had planned to attend both services despite contrary rumors, but would now attend neither after Rhodes' offer.

Phelps said the purpose of the pickets isn't to recruit members to their small church of about 50 active members, but to be faithful to God. Phelps-Roper said God promised in the book of Jeremiah that "we are not suppose to be afraid of what you say when I go out and say these words."

"When you see the Westboro Baptist Church standing on your street, you see the word of Christ," she said.

The hour-long chat focused mostly on the Phelps' family's history of more than 44,000 protests, which date back 20 years. The family began attending the church in 1955 before Phelps-Roper's father, Fred, became pastor.

Corley, who was preparing Wednesday afternoon to speak at Harley's funeral, said his friend would consider the attention put on him in the last week as silly.

"Just like his family's requested no interviews, he would do the same," he said. "He's not a publicity hog; he didn't stand out in front of everybody."

Harley's funeral will be at 1 p.m. at Cedar Creek Church in Aiken.

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Previous stories on Westboro Baptist Church's appearances in the Augusta area: