“You might go to church And sit down in a pew. Those humans who ain’t human Could be sitting next to you.” – John Prine
On April 11, 2006, the family and friends of recently deceased Cpl. David A. Bass gathered in a Nashville church to pay their final respects to the 20-year-old Marine who was killed in Iraq when his 7-ton truck rolled over in a flash flood. While those at the funeral mourned, however, a small group of protesters celebrated his death across the street, holding signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Thank God for I.E.D.’s.”
Insisting that God is killing American soldiers in order to punish the United States for its openness to homosexuality, these protesters from Westboro Baptist Church believe that fallen servicepeople should not be mourned. “You turned the country over to fags,” church members have proclaimed. “These soldiers are coming home in body bags.”
Most recently, members of this group staged a protest over the Memorial Day weekend at Arlington National Cemetery. Singing “God hates America” to the tune of “God Bless America,” they held signs that read “God is America’s terror,” “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “You’re going to hell” and “Bush killed them.”
Westboro’s funeral protests, which many find morally repugnant and unpatriotic, have garnered a great deal of publicity-which Westboro clearly loves-and given rise to a national furor.
Reacting to the church’s graveside activities, nine states have now passed laws limiting demonstrations at funerals. Kentucky’s law has already been challenged by the ACLU, which insists that the law is so broad that it makes it a crime to whistle while walking within earshot of a funeral or to stop for a conversation on a public sidewalk adjacent to a funeral home or place of worship while a funeral service is in progress.
On a national level, President Bush has recently signed legislation that essentially bars free speech demonstrations within certain distances of cemeteries. This over-reaching law bans “any picketing, any speech, the display of any banner, flag or the distribution of any handbill, pamphlet,” etc., at funerals. What this means is that any citizen even engaged in such nondisruptive expression as carrying an American flag while mourning the death of a slain soldier could also be in violation of the law. Moreover, anyone violating this law would face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison. However, in the opinion of Westboro’s pastor Fred Phelps, Congress and President Bush, who signed the legislation into law, are the ones “blatantly violating the First Amendment.”
Fred Phelps started the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church in 1955. Consisting mainly of him and his extended family, the church became infamous in 1991 for its “God Hates Fags” message, which is also the name of its website. As the website explains, “By the time a person reaches the state of hard core, defiant, unrepentant, homosexual lifestyle, God has washed His hands of that person. God does not hate them because they are homosexuals; they are homosexuals because God hates them.”
Devoted to its anti-gay campaign, Westboro’s pastor claims that since 1991, Westboro has carried out 40 pickets a week, every week. And that may be a conservative number. However, it was not until the controversial death of Mathew Shepard in 1998 that Westboro attained a level of public notoriety. Shepard, a 21-year-old Wyoming college student, was brutally beaten and left for dead, reportedly because he was gay. Westboro members picketed his funeral and the murder trial of the men who had killed him with signs stating that Shepard was in hell for being gay.
Westboro not only condemns those who are openly homosexual but also those who do not speak out against homosexuality. For example, accusing Chief Justice William Rehnquist of not protecting the United States against homosexuality, they picketed his September 2005 funeral with signs reading “Judge in Hell.”
In fact, Westboro sees nearly every national disaster, act of human depravity and natural disaster as God punishing the U.S. for its stance on “fags”-and they go so far as to thank God for these tragedies. They insist that the Space Shuttle Columbia crashed as a way to punish the U.S., NASA and the astronauts for not using their position to speak out against homosexuality. They offered prayers of thanksgiving after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and even traveled to New York City to protest rescue efforts, mock victims and urge that those who were still alive should be left there to die. They also praised the devastation resulting from the tsunami in Asia and Hurricane Katrina as God’s way of punishing those who have let the “fags” take over the world.
There may be some individuals who see Westboro Baptist Church as representative of Christianity. But they really have nothing to do with true Christianity or with spreading a Christian message. As Jesus Christ proclaimed, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
In rejecting Christ’s admonitions, Westboro has chosen instead to focus its efforts on spreading hate. Their actions are deplorable, particularly their protests at military funerals.
Whether their actions are illegal, however, is another matter altogether. The legal dispute centers on whether such tasteless protests can be considered protected free speech under the First Amendment. Indeed, James Madison, who authored the First Amendment, noted that the purpose of the Amendment was to protect the minority against the majority. And as Madison knew very well, the minority is often made up of extremists who have nothing better to do than foam at the mouth.