(SMYRNA, Tenn.)(AP) -- Members of a Topeka, Kansas church say God is punishing American soldiers for defending a country that harbors gays _ the reason they brought their anti-gay message to the funerals of two Tennessee soldiers killed in Iraq.
But followers of Westboro Baptist Church who carried signs and shouted things such as, "God hates fags" and "God hates you" were met with equally strong messages of soldier supporters who gathered at the funerals of Staff Sgt. Asbury Fred Hawn II in Smyrna and Spc. Gary Reese Jr. in Ashland City.
"My husband is over there, so I'm here to show my support," 41-year-old Connie Ditmore, of McMinnville, said as she waved and American flag and as tears came to her eyes. "To do this at a funeral is disrespectful of a family, no matter what your beliefs are."
Hawn, 35, and Reese, 22, were killed in an Aug. 14 attack in Iraq when they were hit by rocket-propelled grenade fire. Both were members of the Tennessee National Guard's 278th Regimental Combat Team.
The Rev. Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist, contends that American soldiers are being killed in Iraq as vengeance from God for protecting a country that harbors gays. The church, which is not affiliated with a larger denomination, is made up mostly of Phelps' children, grandchildren and in-laws.
About 10 church members protested near Smyrna United Methodist Church and nearly 20 stood outside the National Guard Armory in Ashland City. Members have demonstrated at soldier funerals across the nation, including the Aug. 11 service for Sgt. James Dustin "Dusty" Carroll in McKenzie.
"The best venue is the funeral of an IED- (improvised explosive device) killed son or daughter," Phelps said, adding "The righteous will rejoice when he seeth the vengeance."
Hundreds of Smyrna and Ashland City residents and families of other soldiers turned out at both sites to counter the message the Westboro Baptist members brought.
So many counter demonstrators were gathered in Ashland City that police, Cheatham County sheriff's deputies and state troopers were brought in to control traffic and protect the protesters.
The church members held protesting permits, and counter protesters in Smyrna turned their backs to Westboro Baptist members until time expired on the protest permits.
Ashland City counter protesters chased the church members' cars down Ashland City Highway, continuing to wave flags and scream "God bless America."
"If they were protesting the government, I might even join them," Danny Cotton, 56 of Ashland City, said amid cries of "get out of our town" and "get out of our country."
"But for them to come during the worst time for this family - it's just wrong."