Friday, February 10, 2012

Westboro Baptist Church: Toeing the Free Speech Line

Imagine.  Today is the funeral of your loved one who has perished in a most tragic way.  You wake up on the morning of the funeral and manage to somehow dress yourself.  You go into your kitchen for breakfast and you find yourself staring out of the window, day dreaming about your loved one who used to greet you there each day.  As you take the second bite of the toast that you just made, you realize that you are not even hungry.  You sit at your table and think about crying because the pain is just too much to bear.  But you don't because you need to be strong.

The black stretch limousine pulls up to your house where other family members, dressed in all black, await you with somber stares.  As you approach, a few of them get out and give you the type of hugs reserved for the moments when you cannot adequately comfort yourself.  But you muster the strength to get inside and go on.  At some point, all of your family is in the limo and the driver heads to the funeral.  Everyone in the limo is respectfully silent and completely still.  You stare out of the window and daydream about the times you had seeing, feeling, and hearing your loved one.

And then you see the protestors.

You observe dozens of people with picket signs revealing a hate in perfect symmetry with the expressions on their faces.  The signs are gut-wrenching.  Some say, "GOD HATES FAGS!"  Others say, "[Your Loved One] died because your state allows gay marriage.  You feel short of breath because you cannot believe what you are seeing.  You think to yourself, "what does this have to do with my family?"  Then your eye catches the most reprehensible sign.  This one was designed for maximum damage.  Unlike the others, this one has a picture of your loved one, set over the words, "[Your loved one] WILL ROT IN HELL!"  Your emotions rise to the point where all you can see is red.  You hear some of your family members sobbing uncontrollably, obviously set off by the sight and messages of the protesters.  Fortunately, this is not your nightmare.

But for the Powell family, it is.  On this Saturday, in a reckless attempt to promote a message of hate, the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church plans to protest the memorial services of Charlie and Braden Powell.  The church is protesting the boys' memorial service because Washington state, where the boys resided with their father, passed legislation allowing gay marriage.  If you remember, the Powell boys were hacked to death and then burned in their Graham, Washington home along with their father who killed them because he was suspected in the disappearance of his wife.

You know Westboro Baptist Church is our favorite "God-loving" congregation that protested the funerals of soldiers killed in battle.  The one headed by so-called Christian, Fred Phelps, and his family.  You got it, this is the same church that threatened to burn Korans in a bonfire to show those of the Muslim faith that Westboro's religion is better.  Well, this time they have picked the tragic deaths of the Powell boys to promote their twisted anti-gay views to a national audience.  But have they crossed the free speech line?  Unfortunately, they have not.

The 1st Amendment states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech..."

So, based on the plain reading of the Constitution, Westboro Baptist is neatly within their rights to speak their twisted yet collective minds.  Horrible you say?  Unspeakable?  It gets worse.  In 2011 Chief Judge Roberts, in the Supreme Court decision deciding whether the church could continue promoting its publicity-seeking hate protests, ruled that the 1st Amendment protects, "even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."  So there you have it, Westboro can inflict unimaginable pain on grieving families all while hiding behind freedom of speech protection.

Now of course, there is the 1st Amendment's time, manner, place restriction that will limit Westboro protesters to a safe distance from the Powell family, who plan to mourn the boys' deaths.  However, Westboro will ensure the family and the media see their vitriol-filled "Christian" anti-gay rhetoric.   But this begs the question.  How can we protect the rights of the Powell family to grieve?  Is there a way prevent Westboro's free speech exercise from interfering with the rights of the Powell family?  Fortunately, all is not lost.

There's actually a simple solution.  Fight the free speech of hate with the free speech of love, the free speech of unity.  Stand together arm in arm and create an impenetrable barrier between the ignorant Westboro church goers and the still-grieving Powell family.  Drown out the chants of intolerance with the rally cry of support.  Counter the protest signs of fury and rage with the protest signs of tenderness and mercy.  This is the way to overpower Westboro's hate-powered publicity stunt.  

It is clear that Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist want a national soapbox to stand on.  Heck, they might not even show up at the memorial.  Judging by the first storm they have concocted on Twitter, they may be satisfied with simply stirring up the nation's emotions.  They may claim victory at getting their anti-gay message  across based on the outcry elicited simple by their threat to protest the Powell boys' memorial.  I hope they don't protest the memorial service.  But don't bet on it.

So, I say to Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist members, keep in mind that your family members too will some day perish.  Your sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers will most certainly meet with Death's angel.  Keep in mind that people are waiting and will be there.  They will be there to ensure you know the hurt of mourning a loved one while being heckled.  They will be there to make you drink from the cup of intolerable pain and you will see your loved ones' memories batted aside as others prove a cold-hearted point.  Your misery will be celebrated by others as you ask yourself, "why are they doing this?"  And they will answer, "Because the 1st Amendment says we can."  


1.  What are your thoughts on Westboro Baptist Church's strategy of using funerals to promote their message?
2.  If you were a legislator, what would you do to prevent this?

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