Ryan Wheeler, Westboro Baptist Church target, glad picketers didn't ruin Ponderosa graduation

The members of Topeka, Kansas' Westboro Baptist Church are notorious for many things, including signs that read "God Hates Fags" and protests of military funerals. But for them to plan a protest at his graduation was a shocker Ponderosa High senior Ryan Wheeler wasn't ready to handle. Luckily, he didn't have to.

Westboro claimed "travel complications" forced pickets to and cancel May 19 protests of the Ponderosa graduation, the DU Hillel and the Denver Islamic Society.

Wheeler, eighteen, garnered the attention of the church after he wrote an essay for the Denver Post about about his displeasure over the Supreme Court's 8-1 ruling that the WBC's protests at military funerals are a form a free speech. The decision gives members of Westboro the chance to continue to spread their "concerns" across America.

After catching wind of Wheeler's article, the church alerted the Parker Police Department to expect the arrival of six to eight protesters at the graduation, something that convinced the school and the city to beef up security.

"I would say I was surprised that they even saw the article," Wheeler says. "I was also surprised that they actually wanted to come all the way up to the graduation in Parker.

"When I was writing it, I took into account that they may see it, so I specifically didn't use their church's name," he adds. "The column was more about the moral issues behind some of the First Amendment."

Wheeler knew about Westboro's reputation for creating a stir and then not showing up, however -- so he held out hope for a no-show right up to the day he got his diploma.

"They do that a lot, where they just apply for a permit and get people riled up so the city has to pay money for extra security and just don't show up. But I didn't think they would show up. They had a few other protests planned that day," Wheeler says.

"Plus, it was really rainy and cold and not that many people wanted to be there anyway."

If the church members had arrived, they would have had to deal with a counter-protest organized on Facebook. In fact, more than 1,000 people joined a group dedicated to fighting the planned Westboro action at the school.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Top 8 Westboro Baptist Church insults against Colorado."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jordan Roston
Contact: Jordan Roston