Something Bad Has Happened, and therefore, the Westboro Baptist Church has announced that they will picket the funerals of those who died. This is what they do these days, their entire purpose. Exploit tragedy in the crassest way possible. They travel the country to use any tragedy to blast their message that their god most certainly hates homosexuals, because he let Tragedies Like This happen. Great guy, that god of theirs. The best part about WBC’s methods is that they get people all worked up. Their latest announcement that they will picket the funerals of the Newtown shooting victims has triggered a call on the White House’s petition site to have WBC legally recognized as a hate group. The petition has gathered over 90,000 signatures at this point.
This is, of course, a Bad Idea. It’s wrong, and it’s reactionary. WBC spews hatred on a daily basis, but they have committed no actual hate crimes. Do you who else spews hate on a daily basis? The American Family Association. The Catholic League. The National Organization for Marriage. All three of those groups have done far and away more to actually deny people civil rights than Westboro Baptist has ever done, yet none of those groups has managed to get 90,000 people to demand that the White House declare them a hate group. Let’s be clear here: WBC has never called for people to rise to violence. They have never done the equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. Like it or not, their message is entirely and utterly protected by the First Amendment, and they are smart enough to never stray from that. 90,000 people didn’t just ask Barack Obama to label them a hate group, they asked him to violate a group’s freedom of speech.
As Fred Clark wrote almost four years ago:
Fred Phelps is a free man, so if you think your freedom is going to be restricted, you must be planning to outdo Fred Phelps.
So there’s the two-word answer for every Tony Perkins or James Dobson or Damon Owens who makes up some dubious claim about being persecuted or punished or threatened or jailed or whatever for their anti-gay beliefs.
Fred Phelps is the canary in the coal mine of our democracy. He and his followers say terrible things out loud in public places that common decency balks at, but they do it legally. The moment we start curbing that, the moment we try to legislate away this type of expression, that is the moment we prove the AFA and NOM right. That is the moment that we say “we disagree with your message, therefore, it is illegal for you to say it.” That is the moment we actually try to take away the rights of religious people to be complete hate-filled Neanderthals, and once we’ve crossed that Rubicon, we are really not far from legislating away whatever speech the majority disagrees with. We’re not far from criminalizing condemnation of, say, the Catholic church for any reason. Because, hey! That might be hate speech, and that would be illegal!
But in the mean time, notes Clark:
So when the folks at NOM insist that their opposition to same-sex marriage is a matter of “religious liberty,” the liberty they’re talking about has to be the liberty to exceed the Fred Phelps standard — the liberty not just to restrict membership on religious grounds, or just to preach against homosexuality as a sin, or to condemn and denounce homosexuals as people hated by God, but the liberty, apparently, to go beyond all that, beyond anything even Fred Phelps has imagined.
Attempting to label Westboro Baptist as a hate group, when their only “crime” so far is saying things that you don’t agree with, means that you are willing to legislate any speech with which you disagree. Think about that for a while. Think long and hard before you demand that we violate someone’s civil rights because you don’t like what they have to say. Because that’s what legally labeling WBC as a hate group boils down to. Violating their First Amendment right to be complete idiots.
Edit: Something I completely missed in the writing of this – there is no legal classification for a ‘hate group.’ There’s the Southern Poverty Law Center’s classification, but WBC has been on their list for some time now. This petition is asking the government to create a brand new class simply to persecute a bunch of people who say things we don’t like.