In February 2003, members of Westboro Baptist Church threatened to travel to Springfield, Mo. to protest the production of “The Laramie Project,” a play about the murder of Mathew Shepard.
There was a small group of local protesters who gathered, and they were prepared to counter the Westboro congregants — who failed to show.
I was a reporter for The Springfield News-Leader and was assigned to the story.
I called the Kansas-based church and spoke to Timothy Phelps, youngest son of the church’s founder, Fred Phelps. Interestingly, in addition to the interview, Timothy and I had a side conversation about the church’s beliefs — particularly its view that God hates gay men and women.
I was still a fairly young Christian, but I surprised myself by getting heated — shedding briefly my objective approach and waging a small battle about what I believed (and know) to be the group’s false message about God. I don’t remember the entirety of the conversation, but I do remember using Jacob and Esau as an example in some way. It was a frustrating conversation. And, obviously, I wasn’t very persuasive.
I didn’t realize at that time how notorious Westboro was and how notorious they would become. Today, I teach a class on Law and Ethics of Journalism and we always discuss Snyder vs. Phelps, the Supreme Court case which upheld Westboro’s First Amendment right to conduct their hate-filled protests. The classroom debates about the case are always passionate — and they should be.
Honestly, I cringed when I clipped this article from Newspapers.com and reread Timothy Phelps’ quote:
“Of course we preach hate…You can’t preach the Bible without preaching hate. … You can’t talk about God Almighty without talking about all of his attributes.”
Phelps is wrong. Westboro is wrong. God is love. And it’s my right to write it.