Joliet Jake to a patrolling officer: Hey, what’s going on?
Officer: Ah, those bums won their court case so they’re marching today.
Joliet Jake: What bums?
Officer: The … Nazi party.
Elwood: Illinois Nazis!
Joliet Jake: I hate Illinois Nazis.
— Scene from ‘The Blues Brothers’
Hate’s a strong word, maybe the strongest word. Oddly enough, folks still throw it around like tossing pennies in a fountain. I do too.
But writing it’s a different deal. When someone writes that they hate something, it’s indelible. It’s permanent. It’s real. It has meaning.
So all of that said, here goes: I hate the Westboro Baptist Church.
Yes, I admit it. Put the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. right there with war, poverty, racism, intolerance, Illinois Nazis and the use of cheese for no apparent reason on the list of things I loathe and despise.
And the Westboro crowd got there the old-fashioned way. They earned it.
Now, this Westboro Baptist Church bunch lurched headlong into my radar screen a little quicker than they did for most in America. They arrived with a thud in my territory at the time — managing editor of a newspaper that serves a military community. Lucky us.
So not long after 9/11, when America started sending Marines and sailors from Camp Lejeune to Afghanistan and Iraq and the inevitable consequences of war began to happen, the faxes rolled in. They were spare, not professional looking, but distinctive. Lots of bold type. It looked like something produced in the basement by someone very disturbed.
The message was easy to read, impossible to understand and beyond the pale of what any sane person might consider good taste or even human for that matter.
“God hates Marines,” one read.
“Thank God for IEDs,” was one, referring to roadside bombs in Iraq.
“Thank God for dead soldiers,” stated another.
My initial response was blunt. “Who are these (expletive deleted),” I said aloud to a room of usually jaded reporters and editors. The expletive, by the way, refers to a body part located … well, forget it. Some things are better left unsaid. I’ll censor myself on that one. I could write it because the First Amendment says I can but it would lack manners and taste. It would be wrong in this particular forum.
All it takes is common sense.
Over the past eight or nine years, I’ve seen hundreds of such faxes from the Westboro Baptist Church, a small group founded by Fred Phelps, who calls himself a pastor. They believe that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were God’s punishment on the United States for its protection of a variety of sins, most prominently homosexuality. One of the primary headlines on their faxes is the recurring “God hates fags.”
It’s a point of view and one they’re welcome to. I don’t care much for it, but in the final analysis, that doesn’t matter. This is America.
Then, because they planted a flag on the lunatic fringe, the Westboro group had to kick it up a notch. They began to send a protester or two to the hometowns of troops killed in action, protesters who showed up at funerals. Sometimes they merely threatened to be there and did so via fax to local newspapers. We received a few here at the Times-News when area service members were killed in action. Every so often they arrived with signs. Some communities made them picket far from the funeral sites. A few states, North Carolina included, enacted funeral protest laws.
Smart newspapers and media outlets ignored the protests. Publicity, after all, is what they want. Covering what they do only justifies their actions and brings more grief to the families of fallen troops.
From my perspective, the funeral protests are beneath human contempt. I don’t just think it’s wrong, but morally bankrupt. In the final analysis, that doesn’t matter. This is America.
So I wasn’t surprised then that the Supreme Court last week correctly upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest at funerals. It was an 8-1 ruling that was a no-brainer despite popular opinion that the practice is obnoxious and should be banned. Cases like this one are why we have a High Court to sort through our laws rather than leaving it to the political whims of Congress. The First Amendment right to free speech protects us all — including speech that’s repugnant but still, as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “a matter of public concern.”
So today I applaud the Supreme Court for continuing to provide protection for a fundamental American right. And I can say without hesitation that I hate the Westboro Baptist Church.
This is, after all, America.