Augmented reality smartphone game Pokémon Go has become a sensation, sending players across the globe out into the real world to hunt and capture Pokémon. Now it seems the infamous Westboro Baptist Church is also getting in on the action.
In the game, various local landmarks become "gyms" that allow players to battle other users' Pokémon for control of that particular location, such as a train station, local park or pubs.
When one player named "Pinknose" noticed that the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) building in Topeka, Kansas, was tagged as a "gym", they decided to "take control" of the controversial church with a Clefairy Pokémon named "Love Is Love", after the same-sex marriage slogan. Other users also joined in using their own uniquely named Pokémon such, as "STOP HATE!"
The anti-LGBTQ religious group is notorious for its vicious hate speech and protests against same-sex marriage at public events and funerals of gay soldiers and, more recently, the Orlando shooting victims.
WBC soon took to Twitter to respond to the takeover, using their own pink Pokémon to promote the religious group's anti-LGBTQ message. "We recruited Jigglypuff to deal with the sodomite loveislove Clefairy for us," the group tweeted.
Using Pokémon, the group also created their own hate campaign including several slogans, posters and Vine videos featuring the franchise's beloved monsters.
When asked about WBC's use of Pokémon images, which they deem to be false idols, to spread their message, church elder Steve Drain told USA Today that they "try to speak whatever language is being spoken."
"Pokémon Go and sin no more. That's what the Lord Jesus Christ said," Drain said.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group is listed as an extremist hate group that "specialises in anti-gay vitriol" and is "arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America."
The Huffington Post reports that one of the users trolling the church was Davis Hammet, director of operations at the Planting Peace-sponsored, rainbow-coloured Equality House located directly across the street from the WBC building.
"Around 150 people visit the Equality House a day and since Pokémon Go launched, we've seen a ton of people coming for the opportunity to own WBC," Hammet told The Huffington Post. "The sheer popularity of the game is part of it, but I think the larger picture is one where people are seeking out light-hearted, productive means that undermine and challenge hateful messages."
Although the game is still rolling out to various territories, it has already sent Nintendo's shares surging, overtaken popular dating app Tinder, and prompted bizarre anecdotes from Pokémon Go players, from multiple injuries to finding dead bodies.