Westboro Baptist Church’s Hate Is Protected. How Do We Protect Our Country?
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The ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Snyder v. Phelps—allowing hate speech near funerals—causes me great concern about our social cohesion. I wonder if we are not forgetting some basic requirements of human dignity—which are, I believe, as essential as the rule of law to our life as a free people.
As a nation, we are proud of our constitutional commitment to freedom of speech, assembly, and religion—generally viewed as one of the special strengths of our republic.
That commitment is the basis of the sweeping U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing hate speech near funerals—spewed by folks who came to Richmond last year.
But can we be proud that our laws allow people who claim some sort of religion to heap scorn and calumny on the family and friends of a brave soldier who went overseas to protect our liberty and the liberty of others? Is deliberate pain inflicted on others protected speech? One who raises that question is Justice Samuel Alito, the lone dissenter in the case.
In his dissent, he wrote, “In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims.” I rarely agree with Justice Alito, but I am grateful for his thoughtful dissent in this case. Whether he would come to the same conclusion about bullying based on sexuality or gender or race is not clear.
But it is noteworthy that many nations in Western Europe place limits on hate speech. After surviving the Nazi onslaught on human decency, continental Europe largely refuses to allow speech that brutalizes any group. Britain, from whom our legal system is largely derived, has never allowed absolute freedom of speech.
Nor does the United States allow absolute freedom of speech. In a famous case, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes opined that the cry of “Fire!” in a crowded theater—if it is not true—is not protected speech.
So, the protestors from Westboro Baptist Church (not at all like Baptists I know) are required to stand at a distance—1,000 feet (which is the equivalent of 4 city blocks)—and they are not allowed to interfere in the funeral traffic. Of course, they don’t have to tell the truth.
Is that enough?
Last year, members of this group visited Richmond—twice. The first time, they mostly mocked Jewish residents and community institutions (and one high school, which has an active Gay Straight Alliance). The second time, they mocked mostly Christian churches, and their lawyer participated in a debate about the limits of religious freedom and free speech.
Few questioned the right of these visitors to picket and share hate speech. Some of us stood with the leader of the Virginia Holocaust Museum who attempted to reason with the protestors. In response, they simply shouted their hate more loudly.
They prove one thing: hate is alive in our society. How do we as a people stand up against it?
Last year, when the Phelpsians came to Richmond, most people said, “Pay them no mind. All they want is publicity—if we ignore them they will lose.”
I dissented from that view then. I still do. They may only want publicity (I am not sure that is true), but always there are people who will be drawn to them. I remain convinced that we need to speak up against hate, even the kind that most people say they do not take seriously. If we are not vigilant against all forms of hate, the day may come when haters will overwhelm non-haters, and our nation will no longer be a beacon of liberty for the oppressed of the world.
Chief Justice Roberts did not defend the content shared by the Westboro folks, only their right to say what they want. That is comforting in a way, because I can say what I want, and you can, too. I do cherish that right.
And yet, what I see among us over the past several decades is an erosion of our social cohesion. The gap between the very, very rich and the rest of us has grown exponentially, and shows no signs of slowing. Growing income inequality is, according to many social scientists, a real danger for our remaining a viably united nation. I do not see hate in this trend, but clearly there is indifference.
And indifference seems to be rising among many who are increasingly turned off by the ugliness of our political debate. If too many of us tune out, will we not lose our national soul?
Hate mixed with indifference is lethal, because hate never feeds souls, it only kills them.
So, I remember what Dr. King said of the struggle for civil rights, “Not only will we have to repent for the sins of bad people; but we also will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people.”
If the court is right—and they certainly have the power to make the decision they made—then the burden on the rest of us is enormous. We have a country to protect—the very task for which that brave soldier lost his life, and for which his family and friends gave thanks through their tears—while enduring the taunts and vitriol of small-minded hate-mongers.
Pictured: Jay Ipson, president of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, approaches the Westboro protesters last year. Photo by Eric Russell.
Rev. Dr. Robin H. Gorsline is President of People of Faith for Equality in Virginia, an interfaith organization of gay and straight clergy and lay people working for equality for LGBT Virginians. Read more of his thoughts on faith and spirituality on his personal blog.
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