Westboro Baptist Church, a controversial organization from Topeka, KS, best known for its protests against homosexuality outside military funerals, has scheduled a demonstration at the University of Chicago March 9 to protest against the University’s support for “so-called ‘abortion rights’ and so-called ‘gay rights,’” according to a press release on the church’s website.
Several students, including first-year Anthony Pence, have begun organizing a counter-protest against the Westboro demonstration. “Based on the beliefs of the church, it really went against my values and the values of other people I’ve talked to,” Pence said. “They have the right to protest. It’s their free speech. They have the right to say what they want to say, but it boils down to respect for human beings and using rational thought. Other religious groups [that disagree with homosexuality] are respectful about it.”
According to its website, the Westboro Baptist Church believes that God kills Americans as punishment for the country’s immoral sexual behavior, focusing primarily on homosexuality. The group frequently pickets with signs bearing slogans such as “God hates fags.”
Deputy Dean for Student Affairs Martina Munsters said the University administration would work with students who wanted to organize around Westboro’s protest. “This is where different advisers reach out to them about what would be effective programming, what would be helpful for our community,” she said. Explaining the administration’s thinking about Westboro’s appearance, she said, “The group is pretty provocative.”
Pence was uncertain about what form the protest would take, but he said that “the general feel of students is that we want this to be peaceful. We don’t want a traditional protest. We want something that represents the unique student body we have at the University of Chicago.”
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a spokesperson for the church, explained that its primary motivation for protesting at the University was that it formerly employed President Obama, whom she called “the Antichrist.”
“It fits all Scriptural description,” she said. “The Lord is coming. America is doomed. [Barack Obama] is going to reign over the destruction of America.”
Phelps-Roper also condemned Obama’s interpretation of Christianity. “Every time he opens his mouth to speak about God and Christ he speaks blasphemies. He uses the Sermon on the Mount as a justification for homosexuality and slaughtering babies,” Phelps-Roper said.
Members of the church will also demonstrate outside the Chicago Theological Seminary, which is not affiliated with the U of C, against the work of Theodore Jennings, Jr., a professor of biblical and constructive theology who has written several books on homosexuality in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jennings Jr. could not be reached for comment.
Facebook groups have sprung up to help organize the counter-protest. Dan Hartsough, a first-year and creator of one of the groups, addressed whether counterprotesting would play into Westboro’s goal of attracting attention. “They will definitely be heard and seen from the positions they have planned, and so in order to make the LGBT community and their supporters feel accepted, it would be nice to have a beneficial protest next to them,” he wrote on his group page.
Phelps-Roper added the church does not intend to advocate a change in any University of Chicago policies. “We have no interest in changing minds,” she said. “Even if we wanted to, we could not.” Rather, she explained that the church wants to bear witness to what it sees as America’s current situation. “The Lord our God, in the most amazing fashion, has permitted this tiny little church in the middle of doomed America to preach to the whole world,” she said.