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Protests flare over school's 'Rent' show

Protestors object to play's content; ACLU sues school district for allowing hostile environment
April 24, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Controversy surrounds opening night at a local high school production. Students are doing a stage production of "Rent," and Friday, members of a Kansas-based church group traveled to Orange County to protest the performance. Hundreds turned out earlier Friday. The protests and counter-protests lasted about a half an hour. They were peaceful, but the out-of-state protestors were clearly outnumbered.

Hundreds gathered on the sidewalk across the street from Corona del Mar High School.

"I think everyone should be treated equal, no matter if they like guys, if they like girls," said student Baylee Robertson. "It's their life, it's none of their business."

Across from the crowd, a few counter-protestors held signs. Their messages contained anti-gay slurs.

The two sides were there over the musical "Rent," a production that deals with a range of issues, including homosexuality and AIDS.

The performance is under way at the high school.

Three protestors belong to a church in Kansas and have protested the funerals of soldiers, and consider President Obama the antichrist. To the people supporting the play "Rent," they had this to say:

"There's no hope for these children. They're cursed," said Margie Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church. "They're the last generation. Keep your eyes peeled on the skies. This nation is doomed."

"To say that anyone hates any group of people is just unbelievable to me," said Archer Altstaetter, Orange County Equality Coalition.

The controversial musical was nearly canceled, prompting a number of complaints. A toned-down version of the play was later accepted.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and high school officials, alleging they allowed a hostile environment to develop toward gay and female students that led to death threats to one student.

"The school has essentially been tolerating sexism and homophobia," said Katherine Darmer, attorney for OC Equality Coalition. "They're not really protecting the students adequately."

School officials say they can't talk about the controversy because of the pending lawsuit.

"There are some issues there, and we take them very seriously, and we continue to take them very seriously and work through it," said Laura Boss, Newport-Mesa Unified School District. "But I can't comment any further. We're just hopeful people will come out, enjoy the play and enjoy its real intent, which is to have an evening of fun."

Despite the controversy, school officials say they have no regrets about allowing this production to go ahead. Performances will continue through May 2.


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