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Antigay group to be met with vigils and unity

Kansas church plans two days in Mass.

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By Megan McKee and Erica Noonan
Globe Correspondent | Globe Staff / December 3, 2010

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FRAMINGHAM — When a notorious antigay church group from Kansas declared it would picket Framingham High School’s production of “The Laramie Project,’’ a play about the torture and murder of a young gay man, this diverse community 25 miles west of Boston had its own reaction.

Residents showed strong support for the controversial choice by helping to buy more than 1,400 tickets to the show.

For the first time in memory, drama director Donna Wresinski said, the high school’s fall production is completely sold out in advance.

The performances, scheduled for 7:30 tonight and tomorrow night, come after three community forums about tolerance, religion, gay rights, and bullying that were triggered by picketing threats from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas.

And there is a planned candlelight vigil called “Love is Louder’’ to counter the demonstration planned by the church.

At the same time, students at Brandeis University in Waltham will hold a daylong celebration of the school’s commitment to tolerance as a way of combating the message of Westboro Baptist, whose members also plan to picket the school’s Hillel organization today.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, a leader in the church, internationally known for its inflammatory views on gays and non-Christians, said that about a half-dozen church members also plan to demonstrate against Harvard University’s Hillel center and at the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland during their two-day trip to the Boston area.

She said Massachusetts distinguishes itself above all other states for “its filthy disobedience against God’’ and “over-the-top sin.’’

Students and officials in Framingham and at Brandeis have chosen not to linger on Westboro Baptist’s negative message but to turn the event into a learning experience and a celebration of tolerance.

Framingham’s embrace of the “The Laramie Project’’ far exceeded Wresinski’s expectations.

“It was what I had hoped on steroids,’’ she said. “There is a dialogue going on in the school about love, about tolerance, that love is louder.’’

More than 80 community members, including students and non-students, are participating in the play that chronicles the reaction of the people of Laramie, Wyo., after the 1998 death of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student.

Framingham High principal Mike Welch said the threat of protestors descending on the school has been a chance to broaden communication townwide.

“It’s another opportunity to provide education not only to the kids, but to the community,’’ Welch said.

Phelps-Roper said her group would picket at the high school, the Islamic center, Brandeis, and Harvard today and return to Framingham tomorrow evening, leading up to the final Laramie Project performance.

When the church members come to the school tomorrow night, they’ll will encounter a show of support from hundreds, if not thousands, of students and residents, said Philip da Costa, a Framingham High senior.

“It’s not going to be just a play that happens,’’ said da Costa, who is head of the drama club. “We’re reaching out to the schools and the community.’’

At Brandeis, senior Rachel Goldfarb said hundreds students are contributing to today’s “Celebrate Brandeis,’’ a day of musical performances, art shows, improv theater, and a leadership teach-in.

She said campus support for a day of unity swelled in recent weeks, shortly after the school learned of the Kansas church’s plan to picket.

“The soul of Brandeis is found in our common values, including the need to stand strong against hatred and bigotry,’’ she said.

The protest has sparked a campus-wide movement that may become an annual event, she said.

“This is a catalyst for creating something bigger,’’ Goldfarb said. “This is about us celebrating the community they don’t fundamentally understand.

Chris Mason, 28, a Tufts University student and founder of the website phelps-a-thon.com, said he plans to counter-protest today’s Hillel picket at Brandeis.

Founded in 2008, his site is collecting pledges of donations for gay and lesbian youth groups for every minute Phelps-Roper and her supporters picket.

With the Brandeis community, the site has raised $3,000 over the past several weeks for Keshet, a Boston Jewish group that supports gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people, said Mason, who will also attend the Harvard Hillel demonstration.

In Wayland, Police Chief Robert Irving said yesterday he would have a police presence along Route 20 during rush hour in preparation for the pickets, who notified the police department several weeks ago.

Islamic Society members could not be reached for comment.

But Irving said they “have no intention of reacting in kind and feel the best response is to ignore them.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com. Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com.

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