Defending the Right to Hate: Westboro Baptist Church

God hates the United States and America is doomed. God is killing American soldiers for the sins of their country. That is the message being spread by a small Kansas church that has gained national notoriety since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Westboro Baptist Church, founded in 1955 by Fred Phelps, spreads its message of hate for America and its soldiers by staging protests at military funerals throughout the country. While most sensible individuals would agree that their actions are morally repugnant, the members of the church’s congregation are exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly, rights guaranteed to them by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The church, led by the fire-and-brimstone preaching Phelps, has adopted the organizational mission of spreading hate and bias whenever and wherever the families and friends of America’s fallen heroes gather to mourn lives sacrificed in the service of this great nation. They rally at grave sites and hold up signs that say “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” and “America is Doomed.” They twist scripture so that it agrees with their agenda. Take, for example, a quote from the church’s website concerning homosexuals serving in the American military, even if they cannot serve openly: “When you fill the Army with fags and dykes and spit in the face of God, you have sown the wind, and shall reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7).” By adding the book, chapter and verse at the end of the quote, the church implies that the referenced scripture is a condemnation from God of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

I readily admit that I am not an expert on the bible, so I looked up the chapter and verse in the New International Version of the Holy Bible which I have at home. In that text, Hosea 8:7 reads like this: “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. The stalk has no head; it will produce no flour. Were it to yield grain, foreigners would swallow it up.” Just to be fair, I decided to check one more source, the King James Version Bible, which says in Hosea 8:7 “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: it hath no stalk; the bud shall yield no meal: if so be it yield, the strangers shall swallow it up.” Every source I consulted interpreted the scripture passage as meaning to convey the basic principle that actions have consequences. This principle can be applied to every action taken by every human being. To twist it in such a fashion as to try and bring discredit upon the honorable men and women of our military, and to express that view at their funerals, is nothing short of disgraceful.

Enter the Patriot Guard Riders. This group of motorcycle enthusiasts has taken up the role of countering the protests of the Westboro Baptist Church, adopting as their mission “âÂ?¦to attend the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family.” Their web site claims two objectives: “To show our sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities,” and to “Shield the mourning family and friends from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors.” They do this, at the invitation of the family, by staging their own assembly between the funeral services and the protestors. Chairman of the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs Steve Buyer is quoted on the web site as saying, “I commend the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of dedicated individuals who upon seeing an injustice, chose to rise up and not permit anyone to dance on sacred ground.”

Recently President Bush signed into law the Respect For America’s Fallen Heroes Act, a piece of legislation designed to limit protests like those of the Westboro Baptist Church at national cemeteries. By imposing restrictions on when and where protestors may gather near national cemeteries, the new law seeks to protect the families of the fallen from people like Fred Phelps and his followers.

This is an emotional issue that rallies patriotic Americans to support for our fallen soldiers and their families, spurs groups like the Patriot Guard Riders into action, and gets legislation designed to protect those who protect us signed into law. While the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church are morally bankrupt, uncharacteristic of the Christian faith I was raised in, and in just plain bad taste, their protests are legally sound, based on guarantees provided to every American in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. And it is these rights that our men and women in uniform fight for and die to protect.

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