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Congregation plans to protest soldier’s funeral

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., are planning to protest a funeral of a Mississippi Army sergeant who died fighting in  Iraq. The church believes God is punishing America for the country's tolerance of gays by killing U.S. soldiers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Members of a church who say God is killing American soldiers in Iraq because of the United States' tolerance of homosexuality are planning a protest at Saturday's services for Army Sgt. 1st Class Clarence D. McSwain.

The 31-year-old McSwain of Meridian died in Baghdad on June 8 when a roadside bomb exploded near his convoy, the Department of Defense said.

Members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., have been going to funerals across the United States denouncing homosexuality and praising the deaths of Americans.

The church's Web site says the group will be at McSwain's funeral in Laurel at 1:15 p.m.

"Thank God for IEDs," the Web site says. IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, is the military's term for the roadside bombs, which have taken a heavy toll on coalition troops.

"This is not the time or the place for that," said Ashley McSwain, the soldier's sister.

"This is about my brother and remembering him. They're not going to stop anything. It won't stop him from dying, and it won't stop us from crying," she said.

‘Like a shadow’
Ashley McSwain said her father, Theodis, is a minister at Gilfield Baptist Church in Alabama, and that her family knows that God would not punish her brother and family. She dismissed the tactics of the Westboro Baptist Church.

"I'll treat them like a shadow I saw out of the corner of my eye," she said Friday. "They're not even worth thinking about."

Clarence McSwain was an honor student and football player at Meridian High School. He took English classes at the University of Southern Mississippi before joining the Army 12 years ago.

This was his fifth overseas deployment and his third tour in Iraq.

Protest of the protesters planned
Members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcycle-riding veterans who attend the funerals to form a human barricade between the church members and mourning families, also plan to attend services for McSwain.

Jason "Waldo" Wallin, deputy executive director of the Patriot Riders, said the group feels obliged to attend the funerals that are targeted by Westboro Baptist Church.

"Quite simply, we're just a bunch of average Americans letting people know that they're not alone. And to let the families know that their soldiers’ sacrifices are not forgotten," he said.

The Patriot Guard is setting up a staging area at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Laurel.

Ed Baker, state captain of the Patriot Riders, said in a posting on the group's Web site that police have offered bikers escorts to the services.

McSwain leaves behind three young children, including a 5-month-old son he had met only once.

McSwain was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division based out of Fort Campbell, Ky.