As if the obvious tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut was not enough misery, a Kansas-based group called the Westboro Baptist Church used this nightmare as a platform to present even more pain. Margie Phelps, spokesperson of the group and daughter of its patriarchal leader, announced after the shooting that Westboro Baptist Church would conduct a protest at the funeral of a little girl who was gunned down in the school.
Led by 83-year-old pastor and disbarred lawyer Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church is known for hate speech largely of an anti-homosexuality nature. Another daughter of Fred Phelps, Westboro member Shirley Phelps-Roper, says that the group’s reason for picketing tragedies, such as Hurricane Sandy and the Newtown, Conn. massacre, is “to sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment.”
Fortunately for those disgusted with Westboro, the “hacktivist” group Anonymous, which engages in forms of online vigilantism, targeted the Phelps clan after Westboro announced that they intended to picket the funerals of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Beyond the mischievously humorous act of vandalizing a Westboro-run Twitter profile, Anonymous also hacked into the church’s offensively named website, godhatesfags.com, and released personal information about its members. Phone numbers and addresses were released online for anyone to see.
Potentially even more devastating to Westboro, however, was Anonymous’ drafting of two formal petitions on the White House’s official website. Both petitions have received enough signatures to qualify for review by President Barack Obama.
The first petition aims to strip Westboro Baptist of its tax-exempt status, thereby helping silence the group by draining its financial resources. Since its creation in December, this petition has reached the appropriate number of e-signatures to be officially reviewed by the government.
The second petition seeks to have Westboro’s official designation as a religious organization replaced with that of a hate group. As a legally defined hate group, Westboro’s rights would be severely cut and it would also be stripped of its tax-exempt status. At over 310,000 signatures, this petition is the most-signed document on the White House website and can be found through the government’s official online petition portal.
Believing that any form of violent tragedy is the Lord’s divine punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality, Westboro Baptist Church has received widespread criticism from both secular as well as religious organizations. LGBT groups often organize counterprotests at many of Westboro’s anti-homosexuality pickets. But it is not only traditionally peaceful groups that find problems with the Phelps’ organization. The Klu Klux Klan even engaged in a counterprotest against a Westboro picket at the Arlington National Cemetery. Not many organizations bordering on being hate groups can say that even the KKK despises them.
Despite the virtually unanimous disapproval of Westboro Baptist Church, it is worth mentioning that the group only boasts about 40 members — most of whom belong to the extended Phelps family. In fact, many of Westboro’s pickets involve fewer than 10 members of the church. Put in this context, the group’s constant presence in the news can start to seem ridiculous to some; does this small handful of protesters really deserve the attention they get from the media? How is it even possible that such a small community has caused the stir it has?
Then again, the church only needs to respond to one event — such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy — to cause enough pain to warrant national attention.
Free speech is important — very important. In countries without it, people to this very day are being put to death for being vocal about certain beliefs. Moreover, Americans are extremely lucky to posses such freedoms. But with great freedom should come great responsibility.
Yes, Westboro Baptist Church, as declared by the Supreme Court of the United States in Snyder v. Phelps, has every right to picket the funerals of all the dead children they can possibly desire. But should they? Can’t Americans humbly accept this power with the gentle obligation to not abuse it?
In time, more tragedies will strike the nation and Westboro Baptist Church will undoubtedly blame them on the LGBT community. But hopefully more will be done to check abuses of the First Amendment before more families need to suffer unnecessary pain at the funerals of their loved ones.
Will Beaton is a freshman majoring in English and linguistics.