GASTON COUNTY, N.C. -- Members of a controversial church plan to protest today's memorial service of a 21-year-old Marine from Gastonia who was killed while serving in Afghanistan.

But friends of Lance Cpl. Nicholas O'Brien say they are making plans to drown out Westboro Baptist Church's message.

Those close to O'Brien say the protest threatens to sully the memory of a young man who turned down a baseball scholarship to serve his country.

But a spokesman for the Topeka, Kan.-based church said it is spreading God's word using a powerful platform and its First Amendment rights.

The church spreads its message with inflammatory protests at the funerals of dead servicemen and on attention-grabbing websites like and

In December, church members also protested outside Elizabeth Edwards' funeral in Raleigh.

The church has only about 70 members but has drawn national headlines with the protests at military funerals.

We try to get to every one we can possibly get to, said Steve Drain, a spokesman for the church who spoke with the Observer on Sunday night. That's what we do with our free time.

O'Brien's family is planning a local memorial service at the First Assembly of God Church on S. Myrtle School Road in Gastonia today and a funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday.

Westboro Baptist Church members plan to protest at both. Drain said late Sunday that a carload of members was traveling to Gastonia late Sunday after a protest in Missouri.

This message is to be preached in respectful, lawful proximity to the memorials of Lance Cpl. (Nicholas) S. O'Brien, a press release from the church says. These soldiers are dying for the homosexual and other sins of America. God is now America's enemy, and God Himself is fighting against America.

Chad Brown, a Gaston County commissioner who was an assistant coach on O'Brien's high school baseball team, said he and others are planning to do whatever they can to make sure O'Brien receives a hero's welcome.

A Facebook group organizing a counterprotest had drawn more than 100 people by late Sunday. Also, Brown said O'Brien's loved ones are going to receive help from the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcyclists who say they try to protect mourning families of fallen service members from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors.

Brown said he was frustrated when he learned of Westboro Church's plans and began speaking with O'Brien's family about ways to keep the protest from treading on the young man's name.

Their headlines that they can bring can never trump what Nic O'Brien did for our country, he said. Nic was a hero. He'll always be a hero.

Westboro Baptist, founded by Fred Phelps Sr., has existed since 1955, but first gained widespread national attention in 1998. A 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, died after he had been lashed to a split-rail post, pistol-whipped, robbed and left in near-freezing temperatures - all apparently because he was gay. Phelps and his followers showed up at the funeral with signs bearing messages against homosexuals.

Thousands of such demonstrations have followed.

This article includes material from the Observer archives.

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