When the Westboro Baptist Church comes to protest a Rent production and The Laramie Project on April 1, protestors should recall the power of silence.
As many Temple students, faculty and staff may already know, members of the Westboro Baptist Church are scheduled to come from Topeka, Kan., to Main Campus April 1 to picket two on-campus theater presentations. The first is Temple Theater’s production of Rent; the other is LBGTQ organization the Queer Student Union’s presentation of The Laramie Project.
The WBC’s “message for Filthydelphia” – according to its online picketing schedule – includes, “God Hates Fags! God Hates Fag Enablers! You will eat your babies!”
Members of the church, which primarily comprises relatives and children of WBC-leader and -founder Fred Phelps, claim God condemns homosexuality. In addition, they credit the deaths of more than 4,000 fallen U.S. soldiers since the start of the Iraq War in March 2003 – along with deaths and destruction caused by natural disasters and acts of terrorism – to their higher power, citing God’s punishment of Americans for supporting the so-called “fag agenda.”
“Hon, they’re all 10s,” the WBC’s Shirley Phelps-Roper told Louis Theroux in the BBC’s documentary on the Phelps family and the WBC, The Most Hated Family in America, indicating the church’s pickets regularly yield favorable results for its members.
And while the language expressed with pride and sincerity by WBC members is unsavory, to say the least, it is nonetheless protected under the First Amendment — for now.
Last Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that this fall, during its 2010-2011 session, the nine justices will rule on the appeal of Snyder v. Phelps. Albert Snyder, the father of fallen U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq, originally filed the suit after the WBC picketed his son’s March 2006 funeral, citing emotional distress and invasion of privacy. The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Maryland overturned a federal trial’s judgment to award Snyder $5 million in damages – a decision Snyder and his legal council are seeking the Supreme Court to reverse.
“The fact that the high court has decided to hear the case indicates that at least four of the nine justices believe that ruling may have been in error,” Lisa Keen wrote in a March 10 report for Bay Windows, a popular New England LGBTQ newspaper.
Keen’s right, but Dr. Thomas Eveslage, a Temple professor for Journalism and the Law, said the Supreme Court could potentially still deny Snyder damages using different legal explanations than those cited by the lower court.
“Maybe the other four justices’ reasoning was inappropriate,” Eveslage said.
The First Amendment liberties of speech and religion “are not absolute freedoms,” he added. When the law is properly applied, government can regulate speech. But unfortunately, the WBC’s members, many of whom are practicing lawyers, have a very firm grasp of these regulations and the legality of the pickets.
It’s impossible to predict how the Supreme Court justices will rule, but no matter the outcome, the case is sure to be a controversial one.
“The scene outside the Supreme Court this fall is going to be just lovely,” said a blogger for Queerty.com, which confidently claims it is “free of an agenda. Except that gay one.”
And, in the neutral middle-ground of what one might call this “agenda” spectrum, lies a Canadian blogger known simply as A. S. Martin, who maintains a blog defending the WBC’s pickets – but not because she adheres to the group’s religious tenets. Instead, Martin is a proponent of free speech, evidenced by the links on her site’s home page to Web sites of Families and Friends of Lesbians And Gays, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the LAMBDA Anti-Violence Project, which provides service to LGBTQ victims of hate crimes, sexual assaults and more.
“It isn’t far-fetched to argue that how we treat the most ‘intolerable’ people in our midst is a good measure of how much we value everyone else,” reads the home page of Martin’s site, therighttobewrong.net. “If we persecute such folks, inflicting unnecessary hardship on them and curtailing their fundamental rights, we are merely opening ourselves to judgment by the same measure.”
So although it may not be what we want to hear, Martin has a point. Everyone – even the idiot from your high school who called all the male chorus members “fags” and all the female softball players “dykes” – has the right to be wrong.
A gay atheist from North Carolina who wrote to Martin, identifying him/herself only as P. Phillips, may have said it best: “You can’t have it both ways – you either have a 1st Amendment freedom of speech, or you don’t … When selectively applied, a ‘freedom’ becomes a ‘privilege.’”
So, members of the LGBTQ community and its allies, I understand the fire in your chest and the nausea in your stomach that starts the moment you hear that utterly sickening three-word phrase: “God hates fags.”
But if there’s one thing you can do this April 1, it’s this: Come to a peaceful, on-campus counter-protest armed not with rocks in your fists or spit in your mouths, but with the one thing that stands in direct opposition to the WBC – love. The LGBTQ movement is about the pursuit of the right to love whomever we want, and to be able to express that love without fear or persecution.
We must not forget, though, that our right to express what we believe comes from the same First Amendment that protects the WBC’s vile speech.
Chelsea Calhoun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.