News that the small Westboro Baptist Church plans to quadruple the protests it holds every year, now that the US Supreme Court has upheld its free-speech right to vent at military funerals and other high-profile events, may leave some people shaking their heads in dismay. But it also represents a challenge to Americans to fight intolerance in the public square via counterprotests, say activists and religious leaders.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to put a check on hurtful speech directed at private individuals, ruling 8-to-1 that the First Amendment protects it. Westboro Baptist Church, an evangelical group in based in Topeka, Kan., with about 70 members, maintains that America's acceptance of homosexuals is inviting God's wrath, and their protest signs spout slogans such as "God hates fags" and "America is doomed."
Already, a loose confederation of counterprotesters has sprung up, community by community, to try to drown out the voices of Westboro's members. It's a strategy that community leaders have deployed in the past against neo-Nazi groups, the Ku Klux Klan, and other hate-baiting groups in a bid to affirm local values of humanity and tolerance.
"The Supreme Court just reminded us that communities have to be vigilant about confronting hate," says Doug Smith, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center, in Richmond, which held a counterprotest against Westboro at the Virginia Holocaust Museum a year ago.
At the same time, Mr. Smith says, Westboro's proclamation that it would quadruple its protests in the wake of Wednesday's Supreme Court decision must be placed in context: "The threat proves that hatred is always eager to replicate itself, but let's be clear: This is a small family of misguided invidivuals, and their congregation is a Potemkin village. They could never ramp up that many protests."
The court case was brought by the father of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died in Iraq in 2006. In his lawsuit, Albert Snyder, the Marine's father, said the church group violated his rights when it "intentionally incited emotional distress" by picketing his son's Maryland funeral, even though the protest wasn't visible and couldn't be heard from the church.
In rejecting that argument, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that vigorous public debate trumps emotional reactions to hateful speech. "Speech is powerful," he said. "As a nation we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."
Westboro has conducted hundreds of protests at military funerals – ostensibly over the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy – but has also picketed holocaust museums, Michael Jackson's funeral, and the Academy Awards.
Local Facebook groups and more official organizations, such as Line of Love and the Freedom Patriot Riders, have cropped up in recent years to physically shield events from Westboro picketers at various protests across the country.
Critics warn that the counterprotests can help the church with its ultimate mission: to bring attention to its cause. But that is not an argument that sways Smith at the Virginia Interfaith Center.
"Practically speaking, it's impossible to ignore a playground bully. But the bully loses when all the other kids on the playground say, 'No more,' " he says. "The reason communities rally around these abhorrent events is because ... the presence of Westboro Baptist Church returns us to the roots and foundations of our democracy, which is that we are stronger than we will ever be if someone tries to pull us apart."
One result of the court's decision could be heightened tensions between Westboro and the church's critics on the streets, at least in the short term. While Westboro is usually careful to stay within the law and clear protests with local police, counterprotesters have in the past attacked members of the group, even pouring coffee on them and spitting on them.
"That shows you that there's another side of this that's not healthy, when counterprotesters get violent and abusive, which is just as bad as Westboro in my opinion," says John Whitehead, director of the Rutherford Institute, a constitutional law think tank that filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Westboro's free-speech rights.