Westboro Baptist Church protests AU campus, faces counter-protest of over 1,000
Between 700 and 1,200 students counter-demonstrated against the Westboro Baptist Church yesterday, according to unofficial estimates by AU administrators.
Four members of the group protested for 45 minutes on the northwest corner of Massachusetts Avenue, near AU’s Glover Gate, holding signs with “THANK GOD FOR CRIPPLED SOLDIERS” and “GOD HATES FAGS” written on them.
Westboro Baptist Church members said they were disappointed by AU’s counter-demonstration.
“I’d give them about a C-minus for size and noise level,” said Margie Phelps, a member and attorney of the 70-person congregation.
AU’s gay community was not a factor in the group’s decision to protest here, said Jonathan Phelps, also a member of the Westboro Baptist Church.
“There’s not a campus in this nation that’s not saturated with fornicators and sodomites,” Margie Phelps said.
The counter-demonstration included performances by AU a capella groups On a Sensual Note and Dime a Dozen, student speeches and fundraising for Queers and Allies. It remained overwhelmingly peaceful despite a few thrown eggs and snowballs.
“By running this rally we were able to control it and redirect their anger into love and acceptance,” said Student Government President Nate Bronstein.
The “Rally to Reaffirm Sanity,” AU’s counter-demonstration, was about bringing the AU community together, rather than protesting the Westboro Baptist Church, according to organizer Jonathan Lipton.
Students stood shoulder-to-shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of the four protesters across the street. Many held signs and sang along to OASN’s performances of Lady Gaga songs. Tara Culp-Ressler, a senior in the School of Communication and an Eagle columnist, read selected blackout poems to the crowd.
Soon after the Westboro Baptist Church members began their protest, Emma Noftz, a senior in SOC, asked crowd members to turn their backs to the group.
“We thought it was a great community effort to come together to demonstrate our love for one another and to demonstrate that we will always be a unified campus no matter what and we won’t allow hate into our community,” Lipton said. “It just happened that the Westboro Baptist Church was here today. It wasn’t about them, it was about us.”
Students used the event to fundraise for Queers and Allies, selling “Rally to Reaffirm Sanity” pins, modeled off Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” earlier in the year.
“Our goal for people to get out of this event is that we’re a unified campus,” Bronstein said. “We will always be a unified campus. No one can stop that – not today, not tomorrow and not ever.”
AU religious leaders grappled with the Westboro Baptist Church’s theology, one saying he pitied the group.
“Like everyone, the things that they say offend me and on some level they infuriate me because of the way that they interpret scripture wrongly and things like that,” said the Rev. Mark Schaefer, AU’s United Methodist Chaplain. “But the thing that troubles me the most is that they make it so easy to hate them and I don’t want to hate them.”
Schaefer said he must accept the group as “brothers and sisters” because they were baptized.
That’s a challenge for me as a Christian,” he said. “It’s one I wish I didn’t have to do, but there it is.”
AU students with connections to the military also came to the counter-demonstration.
Ashlynne Haycock’s father was a solider who died in a training accident at Fort Sill, Okla.
She held a sign at the counter-demonstration saying, “MY DAD DIED 4 YOUR FREEDOM.”
“I think it is the most awful thing to protest at a funeral. If you want to protest, come down to the Capitol and stand on the hill,” she said. “But let those families have that day, don't ruin that one day for them because that's their only chance to say goodbye.”
U.S. Marine Alex Sayada, a sophomore in the School of International Service, said while he understands the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to protest, he doesn’t believe they should be picketing soldiers’ funerals.
“I wouldn’t want my parents, if I go into Afghanistan and get killed, to have them deal with that,” he said.