The Westboro “Church” Protesters

The community I reside in is grieving for one of its own.  Spc. Don Nichols of Shell Rock, IA died April 13th while serving in Afghanistan.  His funeral today was supposed to be picketed by the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which uses military funerals (among other things) as a stage to spew a homophobic, anti-American message.

(Apparently the Westboro group did not show up, but they appeared yesterday at a funeral in Council Bluffs, IA.)

The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the free speech rights of the Reverend Fred Phelps and his family.  In his majority opinion for Snyder v. Phelps, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that we protect “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

While I fundamentally oppose the religious doctrine this church teaches, the Court made the right decision.  John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute sums it up perfectly: “Robust free speech — even of the extreme variety — in the open marketplace of ideas is one of the few hopes we have as citizens.”

It is through the marketplace of ideas that the fight against the Phelps cult should be waged.

Blogger MacAoidh reports the folks in Rankin County, Mississippi took a different route.  USMC Staff Sgt. Jason Rogers was laid to rest there, and Westboro planned a protest similar to their previous ones.  If the story is to be believed, the Church never had a chance.  One church member was beaten down with the cops turning a proverbial blind eye during their investigation.  County pickup trucks were used to block vehicles with Kansas plates from leaving a local hotel.  Protesters were hauled away on trumped-up charges that they were eventually cleared from.

At a gut level, it is satisfying to hear about the Phelps gang treated in this manner.  But it’s important to remember the same tactics were also used in the same locale to prevent a black man named Etoy Fletcher, himself a war veteran, from registering to vote in the 1940s.

Lawlessness. Thuggery.  Intimidation.  Abuse of power.

When you set the precedent to violate the rights of one citizen, you give sanction to violate the rights of all citizens.  Is this the treatment Americans should tolerate for a fellow citizen with a viewpoint contrary to the majority view?  Should the same “justice” be administered to someone who would come out in support of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples?  How about someone opposing an unjust war?  Opposing racism?  Should abortion protesters from either side be silenced through force?  This is not the kind of America I would ever wish to live in.

Then there is what I witnessed this morning, the kind of America I’m proud of.  Hundreds of people lined the streets where the motorcade passed, holding American flags.  This was more than just paying respect to a fallen soldier.  It was citizens peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights to speak with pride for their country.  By displaying their flags, not only did these mourners honor a soldier, but they also repudiated the twisted ideology of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Had the Phelps cult actually showed their faces, what would’ve happened?  Jim Beam, the chairman of a local veterans group who coordinated the flag effort, explained: “We will ignore them, we will not confront them, we will just let them disappear because they are totally meaningless to this situation.”

It’s the way this country is supposed to work.

(Update 4/25/11:  Here’s another example of Westboro being confronted in the marketplace of ideas in Iowa.  No violence, no physical confrontation.  Just people using their free speech to take on the Phelps church.)

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