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Chad Manspeaker, Topeka Councilman, Apologizes To Newtown For Westboro Baptist Church

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The city councilman who represents the Westboro Baptist Church and the site of Sunday night's murder of two Topeka, Kan., police officers is sending an apology to Newtown, Conn. for Westboro's decision to picket memorial services for Sandy Hook Elementary School victims in the wake of Friday's shooting.

Topeka Councilman Chad Manspeaker (D) told The Huffington Post that his community is united in opposition to Westboro Baptist Church, headed by Fred Phelps, and the decision to picket the elementary school, where 26 people -- including 20 children -- were killed on Friday. Westboro consists of many members of Phelps' family, who have been active on Twitter in promoting the group's message. Leaders of Westboro -- best known for picketing military funerals -- announced the planned pickets in Newtown on Saturday.

"I want to send my apologies to the folks in Newtown," Manspeaker said. "We are not a community that embraces the Phelps."

Manspeaker said that while he understands the group's First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, he does not support their decision to use the right in the way they do. He said he and others in Topeka have been dealing with Westboro protests around the community since the 1980s, including outside of city council meetings and businesses. The group largely protests against gay rights and abortion rights.

Manspeaker offered his own explanation for the group's continued protests, including in Newtown.

"The motive is for them to get more press," Manspeaker said. "They are excellent PR managers, if your message is hate and discontent."

Westboro's decision to picket in Newtown has drawn the group a series of negative tweets and a White House petition with over 100,000 signatures to have it recognized as a hate group. Westboro member Jonathan Phelps used Twitter Sunday night to express support for Sunday's murder of two Topeka police officers outside of a supermarket, saying that it was in response to police "abuse" of Westboro.

Manspeaker is not the first Kansas politician to speak out against Westboro. In October, former state Rep. Sean Gatewood (D-Topeka) publicly challenged Westboro to picket his home in place of picketing military funerals. Gatewood's move came as a Westboro member, Republican Jack Wu, unsuccessfully sought a seat on the state Board of Education.

Manspeaker, who heard the gunfire from his house Sunday night, said his main focus now is on the families of the victims of the shootings in his city and in Newtown. He also said that in order to reduce crime and gun violence, there should be more of a focus on mental health issues, along with the reduction of drugs in inner cities. Noting that Topeka is a "gun town," he said that cuts to social services and mental health have caused crime to rise in inner cities nationally. He said that with an absence of mental health facilities, prisons end up becoming default mental health facilities.

Society "isolates" those with mental issues, Manspeaker said, which leads to a rise in violence and a dependency on drugs and alcohol to fill a void.

"If Barack Obama wants to do something, don't focus this all on guns," Manspeaker said. "There are a lot more to the solutions than access to firearms. We live in a society that isolates people from each other. It sounds hokey, but it's all about love. It is about showing our community that we love each other and care about each other."

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