When first hearing of Westboro Baptist Church, it is quite reasonable to assume that it is just another traditional Christian church, much like I thought until recently. A friend and I were discussing a recent protest against homosexuals in New York City when he encouraged me to “google” this very same church.
The Westboro Baptist Church is not related with any other Baptist churches, and if you wish to research them, you can simply entertheir homepage website into your url: godhatesfags.com. As can be seen from the url, they are essentially a homophobic and are also an anti-semitic group which have targeted many gay communities and Jewish places of gathering in the recent years. They have been cited as a hate group by numerous organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League. According to the WBC, the Bible specifically cites homosexuality as a crime and, due to this, the increasing acceptance and tolerance of homosexuals in the United States is seen as a national sin and a continuing problem globally. They believe that this sin results in the deaths and problems of America, notably the 9/11 Attacks and also the death of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This hatred is combined with their hate for Jews as they believed these were the people directly responsible for the death of Jesus. The WBC view Jews as a form of neo-Nazis that are different in their support of homosexuality, sodomy, and have persecuted Christians for the past years,including that of their own Westboro Baptist Church. They believe that the Holocaust was a minor detail of their history, but their crimes have, in a way, justified it. Below can be seen some of their propaganda:
“Whatever righteous cause the Jewish victims of the 1930s-40s Nazi Holocaust had, (probably miniscule, compared to the Jewish Holocausts against Middle Passage Blacks, African Americans and Christians — including the bloody persecution of Westboro Baptist Church by Topeka Jews in the 1990s), has been drowned in sodomite semen…The American Jews are the real Nazis.”– WBC news release, December 26, 1996
Many of us would find this language disgusting and provoking, however, Locke does note in his A Letter Concerning Toleration that governments cannot change beliefs, so it would be inconceivable for us to think that we could change the strongly held beliefs of these extremists. These individuals have been brought up in this religious society that seems to not only solicit hate, but also does not allow for the questioning of this hate. And what does happen when they question these ideas? This video should provide some insight.
Since their beliefs cannot be changed if they themselves do not question them due to their church’s reinforcement of this idea and familial ties, I have found that the better question is not how we can eliminate their ideas, but how we can ensure that they are kept in the private sphere.
I would then argue that it is their places of protest that is in question. They have chosen funerals of soldiers as a perfect place for this protest, holding signs that praise God for the deaths of soldiers and thanking him for the attacks that are purging America of the sinners. Funerals are a private place for remembrance of an individuals life, not a public place to praise their death, especially in the ways that these lives were given up. Acklesburg and Shanley note that this struggle between what is public and what is private is still visible in today’s world and a source of political contention, which was determined in the Supreme Court’s March decision in favor of the WBC. Yet, Acklesburg and Shanley would disagree as they acknowledge that harmful actions “affect its victims not only as private individuals but as public persons or citizens as well, and failure to prosecute such offenses not only denies justice to that individual but also intimidates all victims” (Privacy, Publicity, and Power 224). While they were referring to physical violence, I would apply this to the psychological harm that the Westboro Baptist members inflict upon the families of the fallen soldiers. The protests cross the line between private and public hatred, harming individuals in society. So, I would argue that courts could prosecute the WBC under this idea.
For these reasons, would it be allowable for the government to place restrictions on the types of speech permitted in the public sphere? Could these restrictions include certain places of protests that are allowable or not allowable? Or do you find this to be an infringement on our right to freedom of expression?