MEADE — A 12-year-old's gift to his parents - a brightly colored flag that he said reminded him of Kansas and the Wizard of Oz - has spawned one of the biggest controversies to hit this town of 1,600 people in a long time.
On Sunday, Police Chief Loren Borger, his colleagues and 16 troopers from the Kansas Highway Patrol kept an eye on protests over the rainbow-colored nylon banner that J.R. and Robin Knight decided to fly on the flagpole in front of their business, the Lakeway Hotel.
Townspeople gathered on downtown corners with their video cameras Sunday morning to watch as members of a Topeka-based church - whose protests of funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq spawned restrictive legislation in a number of states - picketed the hotel because of the flag and five local churches for not doing enough to keep it from flying in their town.
While the flag reminded the Knights' young son of Dorothy and Toto, it's also recognized as a symbol of gay pride. Robin Knight said she and her husband didn't put the flag up to make a political statement, but rather because "it has pretty colors, it's bright, it's summery."
Soon after the flag went up, the local newspaper ran a picture of the banner on its front page, noting its significance in the gay community. Afterward, someone threw two bricks at the bed and breakfast, one of which broke through a window and destroyed two neon signs.
When someone cut the flag down, the Knights ordered two more and said they'll buy even more if they have to.
On Sunday, as the daughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps protested with 10 of her 11 children, three brothers and two sisters, onlookers shook their heads at the spectacle.
"It's just not right," said Suzan Seybert, a 30-year resident of the southwest Kansas community, as she watched Shirley Phelps-Roper's children chanting about homosexuals burning in hell. "I think it's despicable to start to teach your children at such a young age the word 'hate'. It's just the worst thing you can do."
Mike Thompson, who teaches a class at Colby Community College on the sociology of discrimination, brought some of his students to see the protests. Among them was Kati Near, who grew up in Meade.
"I think a lot of people think we're all just a bunch of bigots," she said, adding that she was embarrassed by what was going on in her hometown.
From the balcony off the honeymoon suite of his bed and breakfast, J.R. Knight blared music such as Starship's "Nothing's Going to Stop Us Now." Nearby, in the Lakeway's parking lot, a car's bumper sticker read, "Kansas: As bigoted as you think," which is a play on the state's "As big as you think" motto.
Robin Knight said earlier this month that the anger spawned by the colorful flag has strengthened the family's resolve to keep the banner flying, noting that caving in to the pressure would send the wrong message to her son.
"It's our business," she said. "It shouldn't be dictated by other people."