The Westboro Baptist Church will visit campus Thursday to protest theatrical productions.
Although formally known as an independent Baptist church, the Westboro Baptist Church is often recognized as a hate group.
WBC was created in 1955 in Topeka, Kan., by Pastor Fred Phelps, the infamous procreator of the family that comprises nearly all the church’s constituents.
WBC has been covered in the news as antagonistic, traveling the country spreading its message by picketing parades, concerts, funerals of fallen soldiers and other events.
Its message, which members say they preach directly from the Bible, is “God Hates.” The group’s notorious picket sign collection includes phrases such as “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Hates America” and “Fags Burn in Hell.”
Shirley Phelps-Roper, Phelps’ eldest daughter, has seemingly become the iconic figure of the WBC, appearing on shows on Fox News channel.
Phelps-Roper is not only the mother of a number of the members of the church, but also a preacher at the church and a lawyer.
According to its Web site, godhatesfags.com, the WBC conducted nearly 43,000 demonstrations since 1991.
With WBC’s protest of Temple’s productions of Rent and The Laramie Project quickly approaching, student organizations are mobilizing for a peaceful counter-protest.
E-mails to WBC members from The Temple News went unanswered.
Queer Student Union, responsible for The Laramie Project, was the central organization behind the counter-protest, assembling a number of students until recently handing it to Purple Circle, an emerging LGBTQ organization.
QSU President Kate Moriarty said during the past few days, much of the counter-protest changed.
Purple Circle President Ashley Yezuita said his organization provides a space for LGBT students to discuss queer life, hate crimes, religion and other topics without the political aspects of QSU.
“When I saw an e-mail that said the counter-protest was essentially dropped, I said it was something Purple Circle would spearhead,” Yezuita said.
Yezuita added that, although not verified with President Ann Weaver Hart and Temple Police, the counter-protests may include a human chain of non-Temple students to surround the church members with sandwich-board signs of love. Temple students will participate by holding signs and collecting money to donate to the Attic Youth Center, a nonprofit LGBT-friendly center for teens, through a “Phelps-a-thon.”
With 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. showings of The Laramie Project scheduled for Thursday, many members who are involved both in the production and Purple Circle will not be able to attend the counter-protest.
While the counter-protests consist of volunteer students, Yezuita said he hopes other organizations will pledge support.
“We stand against anyone who is being treated unjustly … our organization is disgusted,” Progressive NAACP President Jessica Reed said. Her student organization will assist with the counter-protest.
Reed said the NAACP plans to be a support for the LGBT community by marching with signs and encouraging its members to pledge online and donate money.
“We’re not just about civil rights but about human rights,” she added.
Hillel at Temple Director Phil Nordlinger wrote in an e-mail that, while his organization will not be involved, it will continue to work with students to teach tolerance and respect for all human beings.
Student Peace Alliance President Rowena Lair said although her organization is not directly involved, many of its members will participate in the counter-protest.
“A lot of our members are sympathetic to the cause so they’ll be volunteering,” Lair said.
Yezuita encouraged students to help in the counter-protests by attending a sign-making party at midnight this Wednesday on the first floor of the TECH Center.
Campus Safety Services Executive Director Carl Bittenbender recommended that students ignore the WBC protest.
“The best power that the students have is to ignore them,” he said. “Anything that you do just plays into what they’re trying to do, which is gain attention and media exposure.”
Bittenbender said officers from both Temple and Philadelphia police departments will be present at the protest. Civil Affairs, a unit specializing in protests, labor disputes and public assemblies, will also be present.
Campus Safety Services has not yet established its setup for the protest, including the number of officers or formation of a barrier. Officials will decide after WBC contacts Temple or Philadelphia police. At press time, WBC did not contact them.
The WBC protest will not be treated in the same way as Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders’ speech last semester, because Wilders was inside a Temple facility. Because WBC is not sponsored on Main Campus, protestors will be confined to public sidewalks.
Bittenbender added that if students participate in a counter-protest, they are expected to “behave appropriately.”
WBC previously came to Philadelphia a few times, including a Dec. 7, 2009 visit to the University of Pennsylvania, so Philadelphia Police are familiar with the group.
Imago Dei Metropolitan Community Church Rev. Karla Felshman is also familiar with WBC and its rhetoric. Fleshman, pastor of Imago Dei in Glenn Mills and former Lesbian Avenger, said students should realize WBC and its message are not worth their time.
“Whether you think [Jesus] is God-incarnate, a great prophet or a mythical character, his teachings are on the side of those who are called ‘the least of these,’ the homeless, the hungry, the imprisoned,” she said. “He summed all the law and all of the prophets of his Judaic teaching to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
She added, “If one’s attitude and actions are unloving and unkind to another, if they resort to means of verbal abuse, of intimidation, of creating caricatures, they’re acting counter to the very teachings, and in this case because they identify as Christian, of the one they profess to follow.”
She said she believes the energy of those who say LGBTQ members will burn in hell will be converted to love.
“It is not worth anyone’s time to mock [WBC], ridicule them, deride them or even engage them in debates and discussion,” Fleshman said. “[You] cannot go through a closed door. You cannot talk to a closed mind.”
Fleshman reminded students not to demean themselves in responding to WBC and to look at the students affected by their message and say, “You are awesome for who you are.” She acknowledged that WBC has a right to believe what it wants, and that if WBC did not have that right, the LGBTQ movement would not have gotten as far as it did using the same right.
“That right means that sometimes, we will come across protestors who support racism, misogyny, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ethnocentrism,” she added. “What is important in this country is that when those who want to stand up for the values that are countered to the majority, where we really seek equality and justice, that people are not silenced. What is important is that the voices of justice and equality be more active and vocal, and to do so with integrity and respect for all people.
“To do so without integrity, the message of justice and equality is lost.”
Angelo Fichera, Brian Dzenis and Josh Fernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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