What Recourse Now to Westboro Baptist Church's Rude Protests?

Article excerpt

With the US Supreme Court ruling in its favor, Westboro Baptist Church plans more controversial protests at funerals and cultural events. Counterspeech and counterprotests are best responses, say activists.

News that the small Westboro Baptist Church plans to quadruple the protests it holds every year, now that the US Supreme Court has upheld its free-speech right to vent at military funerals and other high-profile events, may leave some people shaking their heads in dismay. But it also represents a challenge to Americans to fight intolerance in the public square via counterprotests, say activists and religious leaders.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to put a check on hurtful speech directed at private individuals, ruling 8-to-1 that the First Amendment protects it. Westboro Baptist Church, an evangelical group in based in Topeka, Kan., with about 70 members, maintains that America's acceptance of homosexuals is inviting God's wrath, and their protest signs spout slogans such as "God hates fags" and "America is doomed."

Already, a loose confederation of counterprotesters has sprung up, community by community, to try to drown out the voices of Westboro's members. It's a strategy that community leaders have deployed in the past against neo-Nazi groups, the Ku Klux Klan, and other hate-baiting groups in a bid to affirm local values of humanity and tolerance.

"The Supreme Court just reminded us that communities have to be vigilant about confronting hate," says Doug Smith, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center, in Richmond, which held a counterprotest against Westboro at the Virginia Holocaust Museum a year ago.

At the same time, Mr. Smith says, Westboro's proclamation that it would quadruple its protests in the wake of Wednesday's Supreme Court decision must be placed in context: "The threat proves that hatred is always eager to replicate itself, but let's be clear: This is a small family of misguided invidivuals, and their congregation is a Potemkin village. They could never ramp up that many protests."

The court case was brought by the father of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died in Iraq in 2006. In his lawsuit, Albert Snyder, the Marine's father, said the church group violated his rights when it "intentionally incited emotional distress" by picketing his son's Maryland funeral, even though the protest wasn't visible and couldn't be heard from the church. …