Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hateful religious zealots provide for a teachable moment

Aside from its glossy signs (“GOD HATES FAGS,” “THANK GOD FOR 9/11”) and its sickeningly callous tactics (its parishioners have protested at the funerals of AIDS victims and soldiers who died in Iraq), Westboro Baptist Church is perhaps most famous for prompting creative counter-demonstrations.

Ten years ago, filmmaker Michael Moore and a team of gay friends chased around the church’s founder, Rev. Fred Phelps, in a giant pink bus dubbed the “Sodomobile.” Last March, a group of frat boys at the University of Chicago danced to such queer classics as Donna Summer’s “I’m Coming Out” and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” during a WBC protest.

And on Friday afternoon, a boisterous crowd of gay-rights activists, open-minded church-goers and high-school students from across the city met half a dozen WBC protestors picketing outside the San Diego High School Educational Complex with signs bearing slogans like “LOVE IS ALL U NEED,” “GOD IS LOVE” and “GOD LOVES FAGS.”

When it comes to hatred, Westboro Baptist Church has it in spades—the organization is anti-gay, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-military and probably anti- some other things that observers haven’t yet noticed. The group is so hateful, in fact, that even some of the country’s most intolerant evangelicals have distanced themselves from it: The late Jerry Falwell, well-known for his homophobic remarks, once called Phelps a “first-class nut.”

But that hasn’t dissuaded Phelps and his followers, many of whom are either related to Phelps by blood or through marriage. In fact, this has only encouraged them to focus their ire on rival evangelicals as well: They once condemned Billy Graham as a “Hell-bound false prophet,” and they protested at Falwell’s funeral in 2007.

The Phelps clan has essentially made a business out of their work. Some members, including Phelps’ daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper—who showed up at Friday’s protest in sunglasses and a “” tank top—are trained lawyers who work for the family’s law firm, Phelps-Chartered. They are known to sue aggressive counter-protestors and municipalities that fail to provide for their safety.

On the other hand, these veteran media hounds are able to escape accusations of committing hate speech by putting their hatred into God’s mouth. “We’re not judging anybody. God is,” said Jonah Phelps-Roper, a 12-year-old Westboro member carrying a red-white-and-blue colored sign saying, “ANTICHRIST OBAMA IS DOOMED.”

The Westboro members showed up at the corner of Russ and Park boulevards today—one of the first in a series of planned protests at high schools, Jewish centers and churches this weekend—just after 2 p.m., a few minutes before school let out. Posted kitty-corner to the school and often blocked by a throng of cars, their presence was barely registered by many of the students who began pouring out of the campus down Park Blvd. Of course, it helped that crowds of demonstrators espousing universal love filled every other street corner, drowning out the Westboro protests with chanting and drumming on pots and pans.

But it was still a media bonanza over at the Westboro corner. As the police tried to maintain order, photographers snapped pictures, cameras rolled and the Phelps disciples spewed their hyperbolic gospel in interviews. “Homosexuality is an abomination,” Shirley Phelps-Roper told a TV news reporter. “These children have been taught that God is a big, fat, stinking liar—that it is, in fact, OK to be gay. He says you’re going to Hell if you do that. They’ve been taught, ‘No, God is a liar.’”

At lunch earlier that day, many students were dismissive of the group. Westboro could hardly claim to have any fans at San Diego High School, which has its fair share of students who are queer-friendly, or have Roman-Catholic parents or relatives in the military, or all of the above. Lupe Brito, a junior at the School of Media, Visual and Performing Arts, one of the high school’s six “small schools,” had only one thing to say to the Westboro clan: “Get a life.”

But many students had been briefed about the protest in class, and members of the Gay Straight Alliance made their presence known when the protestors came—commandeering the school’s marquee at the corner of Park and Russ and covering it with a giant, hand-painted GSA sign. “They’re just invading our school,” said Jo Gookin, 17, president of the GSA. “This is a place of learning. It shouldn’t be brought here.”

All the same, some teachers considered the event a perfect “teachable moment”—a debate over the boundaries of free speech flaring up just outside the school’s gates. “I think that the students had a very good reaction to hearing about it. A lot of students were just really supportive of tolerance and equality,” said Kara Potter, a math teacher with purple hair who was standing with the equality crowd. “It brought up a good point for discussion.”

And what was the lesson for ninth grader David Jones? “Let people be who they are. Let them be free to express themselves,” he said. “Who am I to judge you? We’re all humans here.”

Photo: Shirley Phelps-Roper standing on the American flag and waving her signs. By Kelly Davis