Students Find Teaching Moment in Anti-Gay Phelps Picket at Upstate NY High School

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Mar 4, 2009

Anti-gay Baptist minister Fred Phelps, whose Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church congregation drew plaudits as protectors of "traditional family values" from right-wing pundits for picketing the Oscars, won't be there, but his congregation has marked a New York state high school for an anti-gay protest because students there are planning to stage "The Laramie Project."

A Mar. 4 article in local Plattsburgh newspaper the Press Republican reported that the Phelps congregation, which consists mostly of the reverend's extended family, was expected to picket the school of the small upstate town on Lake Champlain.

The high school has already outlined its response: students have begun discussing issues of acceptance and diversity, while being encouraged to steer clear of the Phelps clan.

The Westboro Baptist congregation came to prominence after the murder of openly gay Matthew Shepard, who was beaten and left to die outside Laramie, Wyoming, more than ten years ago. The Phelps-led congregation picketed Shepard's funeral.

Since then, the congregation has traveled extensively around the United States, picketing the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers who died in the line of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The group also pickets Pride events and performances of "The Laramie Project," a play based on transcripts of hundreds of interviews carried out with residents of Laramie in the wake of Shepard's beating death.

A recent announcement by the Phelps clan that they would take their picketing actions to the U.K. was met with the group being banned from entering the country. The targeted production of "The Laramie Project," being performed at Queen Mary's College in Basingstoke, drew a single U.K. supporter of Phelps' message that God is preparing to unleash "great wrath" onto Western nations who fail to persecute gays and lesbians in the Biblically prescribed manner.

The Old Testament Book of Leviticus calls for gays to be put to death, according to religious conservatives. Some Biblical scholars have expressed doubt about contemporary understanding of Biblical teachings regarding homosexuality.

The Phelps congregation took their message to the Oscars a few weeks ago, picketing with their distinctive signs bearing slogans such as "Antichrist Obama," "You're Going to Hell," and "Heath in Hell," the latter a reference to late actor Heath Ledger, whose performance as a gay ranch hand in the 2005 movie "Brokeback Mountain" earned the actor the enmity of the group.

Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of The Joker in "The Dark Knight."

Another Oscar winner, Sean Penn, who took the gold statuette for his depiction of slain gay politician Harvey Milk in the Gus Van Sant biopic "Milk," was lambasted by religious conservatives and right-wing pundits when his acceptance speech chided California voters who narrowly passed the anti-gay ballot initiative Proposition 8 in the last election, stripping gay and lesbian families in that state of their right to marry and casing 18,000 families into legal uncertainty.

Right-wing talk host Mat Staver denounced Penn on his radio program "Liberty Live" on Feb. 23. An audio clip from the program praises the Phelps clan for "picketing in favor of traditional family values" outside Hollywood's Kodak Theater, the venue for the awards program.

After his speech, Penn was asked what he would say to the picketers if given the chance; he responded that he would advise them "to turn in their hate card and find their better self, you know."

The Phelps clan's picketing has drawn an array of responses, from counter-protests to being ignored by the locals. The school in Plattsburgh encouraged students and townspeople to adopt the latter course for the anticipated Phelps action.

Siad J.W. Wiley of the State's Center for Diversity, Pluralism and Inclusion, who spoke to the school's assembled student body, "Somebody comes up with so much venom you can easily fall prey to hating them for their position."

Said Wiley, "We challenged students not to do that, because Phelps and people like Phelps don't come out of the womb hating."

The school's instructors have also used the impending protest as a teaching opportunity to host classroom discussions about prejudice and acceptance of differences, including the freedom of speech being exercised by the Westboro congregation in their "street preaching" actions.

Said Wiley, "Basically, they wanted us to come in and address tolerance and hate, and the first thing we did was to challenge students to move beyond tolerance because it is not a word we promote.

"It is just a step along the way toward acceptance and appreciation and a certain level of enlightenment."

The article quoted from an email sent by Phelps' daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, who indicated that her father would not be at the protest.

The article quoted Phelps-Roper's email as reading, "We have NO reason when there are plenty of us that are younger and are NOT the pastor, I say we have NO reason to send him onto the streets at this hour."

The article said that Phelps-Roper explained the group's intention was "to blind your eyes, stop up your ears and harden your dark, evil, disobedient and rebellious hearts so that you will NEVER have saving faith and you will NEVER be converted and you will NEVER be healed."

Added the missive, "Plattsburgh is in a LOT of trouble."

Said Wiley, "We are part of a large contingent of people suggesting nobody goes near this hate-monger.

"But if they do happen to encounter him, we asked students to put it in perspective and look at him as someone to be perplexed or intrigued by."

Said James Short, the Plattsburgh City School Superintendent, "The district is approaching this matter per the suggestion of the Press-Republican Editorial Board--we will endeavor to respect their rights of free speech while essentially ignoring their demonstration."

Added Short, "[The students] seem to understand the fundamental merits of a free-speech society, and they have used their own skills of critical analysis to assess the merits of the Westboro Baptist Church message."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • , 2009-03-06 08:57:49

    man these people need to get a life, what a waste!!!!You rock Heath Ledger!!!!and i know your in heaven, and that these people are going to HELL!!!!!

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