Veteran leading rally to controversial church

Gary L. Smith

LaSalle military veteran Jerry Bacidore was initially only about half-serious when he posted a Facebook comment suggesting a protest at a family-based Kansas church that has become notorious for demonstrating at military funerals to spread a message of hatred of homosexuality.

Members of the church protested outside of the Galesburg funeral of Jerry Tharp of Keithsburg.

But he quickly learned how deeply his own opinions resonated with other people who had been following activities of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, which has become known for expressing such sentiments as "God hates America" and "Thank God for dead soldiers."

As a result, an excursion that had originally been envisioned in terms of a few people car-pooling to the Kansas capital on short notice has been transformed into a project being carefully planned for April 25 for both strategic and logistic purposes.

"Now we're thinking we may have to get buses," Bacidore said Tuesday. "There's a lot of people who want to stand up and do what's right."

Bacidore, 39, served in the Marines from 1989 to 1993 in Iraq, and then in the Army from 2005 to 2008 as part of a Streator-based transportation company of the Army National Guard. A former firefighter who had to leave that job for health reasons, he now works as an activities aide at the LaSalle Veterans Home.

Bacidore was prompted to post his Facebook message after learning the latest development in a high-profile federal lawsuit. The father of a Pennsylvania Marine killed in Iraq filed suit in 2006 against the Westboro church, which reportedly consists mostly of descendants of founders Fred and Marjorie Phelps.

Suing for defamation and invasion of privacy, the father had won a $10.9 million verdict that was reduced to $5 million by the federal trial judge. It was later thrown out by a federal appellate court, and the case is now expected to be considered later this year by the U.S. Supreme Court in a key test of constitutionally protected free speech.

What rankled Bacidore, and has caught the attention of numerous national commentators recently, was the further ruling that the father would have to pay some $16,500 in legal fees. Various groups have been raising money to cover that expense.

"I say let's go protest this church," Bacidore wrote on his Facebook site. "Who's with me?"

One person eager to join was Terry Leverton, who served with Bacidore in Iraq and now works in security at the Illinois Department of Human Services facility in Rushville. Learning about the funeral protests "made me pretty angry," Leverton said. "Who could show such disrespect for anyone's death? You don't go to someone's funeral to cause more grief."

Anyone interested in the trip to Topeka can contact Bacidore at (815) 481-1872 or by e-mail at He emphasized that he is only representing the interests of military families.

"It's not about me," he said. "It's about standing up for military families. It's about standing up for what's right. It's about standing up for human decency."

Gary L. Smith can be reached at 686-3114 or