Monday, April 23, 2012

Westboro Baptist Church members speak at CMU

Westboro Baptist Church member Shirley Phelps-Roper, center, debates a CMU student's question Monday in the Charles V. Park Library auditorium.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File
   Members of Westboro Baptist Church protest the premiere of "Red State" at the Sundance Film Festival
   in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 23 2011.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, famous for controversial protests and slogans, spoke in three forums at Central Michigan University on Monday.

The members came because of Tim Boudreau, a journalism professor at CMU. He invited the church to speak at the university, as a demonstration of free speech to his three classes.

Boudreau said the First Amendment protects free speech, even if some of the speech is unpopular and controversial. He said the church did not ask for money to speak.

Although the church has traveled and protested for the past 21 years, it became notorious during the height of the Iraq War when they protested near the funerals of American soldiers killed overseas.

Some of their slogans include "Thank God for dead soldiers," and, "God hates fags."

Students in the audience hold up their hands with a question for members of the Westboro Baptist Church
in the Charles V. Park Library auditorium on Monday.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, an outspoken member of the church, answered questions and debated the parameters of existence, religion and God with the audience in the Charles V. Park Library auditorium.

"Every dime you give (to a Catholic Church) pays a pedophile priest," Shirley said.

Shirley sat in a chair on the stage alongside her brother Fred Phelps Jr., who is also Pastor at Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Shirley's daughter-in-law Jennifer Phelps-Roper and church member Taylor Drain, a junior at Washburn University, also came.

Fred said the members pay their own way to protest through their regular jobs.

"I don't drink, I don't smoke and I don't chase women," Fred said. "So, I have to find something to do with my money."

In three forums, Shirley yielded questions from the audience that ranged from personal to philosophical and political. At times, the exchanges became heated on both sides. Some of Shirley's comments drew strong -- and sometimes emotional -- reactions from the audience.

Shirley strongly opposed the Catholic Church.

"Scratch off that paint where it says 'church' and under it, it'll say 'whorehouse.'"
Tim Boudreau, standing, looks at the crowd before the start of the first forum with members of the Westboro
Baptist Church on Monday in the Charles V. Park Library auditorium.

The audience gasped and Shirley said the Westboro Baptist Church is not enraged.

"We're not angry," she said. "We're zealous."

Boudreau held three separate forums for his three classes to attend. There were forums at 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Members of the Dogma Free Society protested against the church members outside the library during the forum. At their feet was a cooler of free popsicles for students walking past.

One of the Dogma Free Society members, Cory Kinne, said the organization began protesting about a half-hour before the first forum. He said they had planned to protest until the end of the last forum.

The Dogma Free Society also accepted donations that would go towards Human Rights Campaign and the Wounded Warrior Project, both of which are protested by Westboro Baptist Church.

Fred said they have spent millions of dollars of their own money the last 21 years. They have picketed about 48,000 times in all 50 states, Fred said.

Westboro Baptist Church was condemned on July 4, 2010 by the Ku Klux Klan and also banned from the United Kingdom.

When the members left, protesters against the Westboro Baptist Church's controversial beliefs and tactics followed behind.

"I just think it's wrong for people to come to campus and promote hate," said CMU lecturer Mike Evans. "I think it undermines the mission of the university to promote understanding."

Some of the protesters included gay rights activists and people generally opposed to the church's views and tactics.

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