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Planned protest of Fargo school play will be turned into teachable moment about gays

As word spread through Fargo-Moorhead on Wednesday that the Westboro Baptist Church was planning to protest the Fargo South High School theater's Feb. 20 presentation of "The Laramie Project," the community's reaction was mostly predictable.

School district officials talked about using the motives of the Kansas-based church - which has built an infamous reputation with its various protests touting an anti-homosexual agenda - as a teachable moment for the community.

Others discussed tactics for a counter-protest; Facebook even sprouted a page detailing that movement.

But the people most affected by the church's proposed activism, the teen cast members of "The Laramie Project," had a surprising take on it. They were hoping the protest happens as planned.

"We actually talked about that as a cast," says Jacky Arness, an 18-year-old senior at Fargo South and part of the "Laramie" cast. "We realized that by hoping they come, it's not an intention to fuel the fire. It's just more if the Westboro Church chooses to stand behind these beliefs, we want to show that their method is not always correct."

And, she said, the cast believes any protest by the church could bring more awareness to the theme of "The Laramie Project," which uses the tragic 1998 murder of Matthew Shepherd to illustrate the need to negate hatred and violence in situations of opposing viewpoints.

"Hate only makes situations worse," Arness said.

And to be clear, there might not be any situation with the Westboro Baptist Church.

Though the group posted a planned protest of the Fargo South performance on its website, Rick Buresh, superintendent of Fargo schools, said this group often does not follow through on its promises of protest.

Still, Buresh said the school district has been working with Fargo police to plan for any potential demonstrations.

This isn't the first time the Westboro Baptist Church, which is based out of Topeka, Kan., has planted its message in Fargo.

The group protested near First Lutheran Church during the 2006 funeral of National Guard Spc. Michael Hermanson, who died while serving in the Iraq war. At the time, the church was claiming the deaths of soldiers in the Iraq war were a punishment sent from God regarding homosexual lifestyles in America.

If the church does return on Feb. 20, it might be surprised at the reception.

While people, like Concordia College freshman John Eric Nelson, plan to gather in counter-protest to the group's beliefs, Arness says she'd like to see members of the Westboro Baptist Church buy tickets and watch "The Laramie Project."

Though, she said, "I'm not sure they're open enough to be impacted by it."