A Visit from Westboro Baptist Church and a Learning Opportunity

By David J. Smith, November 11, 2015

Yesterday, November 10,  my daughter’s high school, Rockville High School  in Montgomery County, MD, was visited by Westboro Baptist Church (WBC).   Since the early 1990s this Topeka, KS based fundamentalist group has focused on protests at schools and military funerals. Their message is anti-soldier, anti-gay, and anti-other faiths. The Southern Poverty Law Center claims that the church is “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America. Typified by its slogan, ‘God Hates Fags,’  WBC is known for its harsh anti-gay beliefs and the crude signs its members carry at their frequent protests.”   WBC members frequently make visits to the DC area. On this visit they also protested at another high school, Winston Churchill High School, and were bound for Arlington National Cemetary (likely because of Veterans Day).

Students were asked to commit to tolerance
Students were asked to commit to tolerance

The principal at Rockville High School urged an approach that is increasingly used with WBC: ignore them.  The belief is that by engaging with the group, media attention is attracted, which is what the group seeks.   As such, students (and parents) were asked to proceed yesterday as if it were a normal school day. However, inside the school students were urged to wear school colors – orange and black – and treat the day as a “unity day.”   A large sheet of paper was placed in a hallway were students could “Agree to Be Tolerant” and students signed pledges to support diversity.

As a parent as well as a peacebuilding educator, I offered to come into the school and speak with students on social justice issues and peacebuilding.   I was invited to speak with International Baccalaureate classes, a social studies class, and the staff of the student newspaper, the Rampage (which has published a piece on the Westboro visit).

Rockville residents and clergy counterprotest
Rockville residents and clergy counterprotest

Though no one wishes to have a group like Westboro Baptist Church visit and have their children exposed to their message, their presence does present an important opportunity to explore issues that are at times overlooked or, if covered, are considered in a theoretical way.   Though we have issues of injustice and racism facing our country (e.g., Ferguson, Baltimore), many students today are sheltered from hate symbols and individuals who profess ideology that is extreme by most standards.   In the Rockville community, values of tolerance, appreciation for diversity, and sensitivity to social justice permeate. I serve on the city’s human rights commission, and we work hard to make our city a welcoming community for all.  But, unfortunately, this is not the case in other parts of the U.S.   Living in the “bubble” that is Washington, DC, has both advantages and disadvantages.   As such, the church’s visit provided an opportunity to engage students in a conversation on issues that might seem often far removed, but this morning, where just outside their school building.

Westboro Baptist Church member
Westboro Baptist Church members

With students, I first explored notions of peace and conflict.   I spent time considering the various ways that we consider peace: both as means and ends, and that often these views can come in conflict, such as when peace activists rally around the peace sign, and soldiers rally around the U.S. flag, arguing that it too is a sign of peace.  Pope Paul IV’s  quote “if you want peace, work for justice” allowed me to move into a discussion on social justice.  We talked about what justice means in our society, looking at an image of Rosa Parks; signs that discriminate against Latinos, blacks and gays; and photos of KKK rallies, including one that took place in Rockville in 1982.   We then moved to examining protest for change, starting with looking at the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and what is addresses, especially the notion of “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”   We then considered the value of protest and what we individually can do. As a final exercise, I had students develop their own “protest signs” that would speak to their passion.   I urged students to continue the conversation with their friends, and particularly, their family at that evening’s dinner table.  Today’s visit by WBC, provided an excellent opportunity for students to talk with parents about values of tolerance, social justice, and peace.

If you hear that Westboro Baptist Church is planning a visit, I would recommend looking at it as a learning opportunity for students.  Some will protest, which is important.  But others will shy away, sometimes confused by the messages.  These students in particular can benefit from an opportunity to explore issues of social justice and peace.

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