Don Burdette of Spring Valley says he grew up a religious person, but he wasn’t buying what the anti-LGBT Westboro Baptist Church was selling Monday morning.

The 38-year-old former Navy man, an Iraq War veteran, had a special reason to join 170 counterprotesters across the street from his alma mater, Monte Vista High School.

One of his three children attending the largely Hispanic school is transgender — Miles, a 15-year-old freshman.

“I just feel like God doesn’t hate — in any way or fashion,” he said, wearing a multicolored “Born this way” cape.

Iraq War veteran Don Burdette, whose Monte Vista High School freshman son is transgender, joined the counterprotesters across the street from his alma mater (Class of 1998). Photo by Ken Stone

Now working in electronics, Burdette said Miles has always been Miles, even before his transition last year — “sleeping in, playing video games, and doing the same things I do. But he rocks better clothes than I do.”

Burdette said that anybody who knows computers or electronics knows “everybody’s wired a certain way. There’s no rewiring it. Nothing to be rewired.”

Only three members of the church paid half-hour visits to Monte Vista High and, earlier, Mideastern-student heavy El Cajon Valley High School.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, the 61-year-old daughter of the late church founder Fred Phelps, came from Topeka, Kansas, with her daughter Rebekah, 31, and son Luke, 16 — each carrying four signs and singing anti-gay tunes as rap music played.

Six had been scheduled to come — El Cajon police set up a 20-by-50-foot “free speech zone” for them — but Phelps-Roper said: “We had to send a team to Washington, D.C., and we have to have people going all over. … So we roll with it.”

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El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, watching the Topeka trio, said: “Definitely much ado about nothing.”

Though a lot of people try to stir things up in his city, he said, “one thing I can tell you: It never works.” He called the 100-member “Rainbow Dance Party” counterprotest in a separate area peaceful and unified.

Despite having to deploy 20 police officers (including school resource officers from other campuses), Wells called the expense “the cost of doing business in a free society,” but: “I would like to give them a bill.”

Rebekah Phelps-Roper wasn’t clear on why the two East County schools were chosen, but “we’re always at one school or another because that’s where truth has fallen.”

El Cajon Valley and Monte Vista aren’t more onerous than any others, her mother said.

“Potato, potahto. They’re all the same. Everywhere you look they’ve got clubs and teachers … that point them in the direction of disobedience to God” she said as Rebekah, who attended only public schools, displayed her signs.

The mother held one saying: “God sent the shooter.”

Asked if that included the high school in Parkland, Florida, Rebekah said students were dying in the schools because of their own sins — as well as their parents’ and the nation’s.

“The Lord is fighting against America,” she said. “And He’s punishing this country in many ways. The shooters are just one of them.”

What if a shooter came to Westboro Baptist Church?

“Listen careful now. He did not,” said the matriarch, sporting a small bandage on her lip — injured by a rambunctious grandchild. “When it happens, ask me that question. … Things would have to change drastically for that to happen.”

In El Cajon, students entered campus from another street Monday — with few seeing the Westboro protest — and teachers were instructed to be parked by 6:15 a.m. At Monte Vista, students were in class a quarter-mile away.

Police escort three members of the Westboro Baptist Church, one of whom is dragging an American flag, after their protest in El Cajon. Photo by Chris Stone

But Phelps-Roper still considered the protests a success.

“It’s not our job to convert the devil or change hearts,” she said. “It’s our job simply to preach this gospel to every creature. … They know we’re here. They know that we came.”

She and her children were happy to do media interviews, but denied publicity was a goal.

“Been doing this every day,” she said of the demonstrations. “We’re going into our 30th year. Do you think the media has shown up every day? No.”

And she dismissed the fact her church has been labeled “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Blah, blah, blah,” said Phelps-Roper, who later stood on American and rainbow flags. “If you want to call the word of God hateful, go ahead. And it’s not going to help you the Day of Judgment.”

Patrick Humphrey of Valley Center, who attended both counterprotests, said Westboro was usurping God’s message.

“Love was Christ’s message, not hate,” he said in Spring Valley. “I can’t imagine walking around with that burden every day, of feeling like that. It must be horrible. I feel for those people.”

Kacey Jones of Spring Valley said she didn’t believe in hating people based on race, religion, sexual orientation or identity.

“They don’t like Jewish people, and I’m Jewish, and I want the kids to know that it’s OK to be whatever it is that you are without being hated, she said across a busy Sweetwater Springs Boulevard.

Asked why she thought Westboro chose Monte Vista, Jones said: “We have such a diverse pool of students. We have such multicultural society in Spring Valley.”

Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, stands on an American flag and pride flags while protesting in front of Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley. Photo by Chris Stone

Tara Sivilli of Spring Valley and her son both graduated from Monte Vista, and “I don’t want any hate-mongers coming to my community and telling me that we can’t have love one another or that we can’t honor our veterans with all their picketing of funerals,” she said.

“I have to say that they are in the wrong community. … Our kids are cool and the parents are awesome, so maybe they are looking to target good people.”

El Cajon Valley special education teacher Lisa Kogan said: “I want the students to know that love always wins and we’re here to show them that.”

Indeed, school staffers wore their “Unity Day” T-shirts, welcoming students as if it were the first day of school, said Catherine Martin, spokeswoman for the Grossmont Union High School District.

El Cajon Valley High took steps to “double down” on kindness Monday, Martin said.

Across from Monte Vista, El Cajon’s Wylie Williamson held a leash with a 12-year-old silky terrier and a sign saying “Dog hates cat!!!” But he was serious about the human visitors, saying religious dogma has a corrosive effect on society.

“It’s just really bad right now,” he said.

On Tuesday, El Cajon officials said 20 uniformed officers and a couple nonsworn employees worked the event but had no information on costs. No arrests were reported.

The Sheriff’s Department said a lieutenant, two sergeants and a dozen deputies were on hand at the Spring Valley protest.

“No overtime was incurred,” said Lt. Karen Stubkjaer, a sheriff’s spokeswoman. “The staffing was possible by reallocating resources. No arrests were made as everyone was cooperative.”

Phelps-Roper daughter Rebekah said she’s been to California three times in the past couple months, including for the Oscars.

On Sunday, the Kansans visited SeaWorld.

Phelps-Roper noted the killer whales.

“I felt so sorry for those animals,” she said. “Those animals are so big and [kept] in such small areas. I felt really sad about that.”

Updated at 3:35 p.m. March 26, 2019

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