It’s not often that a high school play gets written up in the national news. But Friday night’s performance of “The Laramie Project” at San Jose’s Gunderson High School was more than just sold out. Another 500 people stood outside to show their support for the show. “The Laramie Project” tells the story of Matthew Shepard, a 19-year-old student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured and killed in 1998 because he was gay.
The Westboro Baptist Church, a fringe anti-gay group based in Kansas, picketed Shepard’s funeral and catapulted into the public spotlight. Since then, the church has stirred considerable controversy for picketing the funerals of American servicemembers killed in the line of duty. Last week, the Supreme Court voted 8-1 to uphold their right to picket military funerals, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing, “What Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, is entitled to ‘special protection’ under the First Amendment and that protection cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was outrageous.”
While the church is now focused on military funerals, it has not forgotten its original disdain for Matthew Shepard, and announced that it would be picketing the Gunderson High performance, which SanJose.com reported first. Hundreds of people showed up on Friday night for a counter protest, under the banner, “San Jose Rejects Hate.” It was a friendly crowd, weaving in a conga line across both sides of the street down the block from school.
The Westboro Baptist Church didn’t show up and the play went on uninterrupted. Gunderson’s drama director, Trish Buttrill, not only had an opportunity to put on a great performance of an important play. She also was able to show the community a valuable First Amendment lesson.