Clayton High prepares response to upcoming picketing by Westboro Baptist Church
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 1, 2012 - Students at Clayton High School are trying to turn planned picketing by anti-gay protesters into a fund-raising opportunity.
Since word spread earlier this week that representatives of the Westboro Baptist Church planned to picket at the high school Monday morning, on their way back from picketing at the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, the school's Gay-Straight Alliancehas been working to come up with what Principal Louise Losos called for: a "positive, peaceful and appropriate response."
Final plans were scheduled to be announced Friday afternoon, but even before that, the club had called for signs in any counter demonstration to "express support for the CHS community, not retaliation toward the WBC" and "be positive in tone and nature."
It said any signs to be carried by students before class Monday morning must be approved by the school's activities office or an administrator. Unapproved signs would be confiscated, the club said.
The picketing by Westboro is scheduled for 7:50 to 8:20 a.m.; a notice on the Gay-Straight Alliance website said:
"When the bell rings at 8:15, all students should enter the building and report to class. We do not intend to allow the protest to interfere with our normal school day."
The alliance also said that it would be selling T-shirts for $20 that say "Love Conquers Hate" and wristbands for $1 with the slogan: "Equality: Nothing More Means Nothing Less."
Finally, the club said it would be collecting donations for the Human Rights Campaign and the St. Louis chapter of Growing American Youth. And it is joining in what is called a "Phelps-A-Thon" -- named after Fred Phelps, the head of Westboro Baptist Church -- to collect donations for every minute that the planned picketing lasts.
"The longer WBC protests, the more money they will raise," the planners' site said.
Phelps-A-Thon began in Boston and has spread as Phelps and Westboro pickets have protested at military funerals and other events, saying that God is punishing the United States for homosexual behavior.
Read the Beacon's earlier story below:
On their way home to Kansas from picketing the Super Bowl Sunday in Indianapolis, some members of Westboro Baptist Church plan to stop off for another picketing event -- outside Clayton High School early Monday morning.
Principal Louise Losos says the school is putting together a "positive, peaceful, appropriate response" and using the planned demonstration as a teachable moment.
"For our students," she told the Beacon, "it's a great way to teach what we believe about our fellow man. We are inclusive and supportive of all of our students, regardless of race, color, sexual orientation and so forth. It's a great opportunity for our students to demonstrate to the outside world that they respect and appreciate all of their classmates, no matter who they are."
Would she rather just be able to ignore the pickets who have made their mark by demonstrating at the funerals of war casualties and others, claiming that the deaths are a show of God's wrath?
"I certainly understand that in a perfect world, ignoring them is a good approach," Losos said. "But in a high school filled with teenagers, some of whom feel directly attacked, I would rather channel their responses than ignore them completely."
On the church's website, as part of its picketing schedule, it says the demonstration scheduled to take place at Clayton High School from 7:50 to 8:20 a.m. on Monday is designed "to warn the children of Clayton High School to flee the wrath to come!"
The post continues:
"The children of this generation have been taught to believe that God is a liar: God loves everyone, it's okay to be gay, divorce & remarriage is fine, premarital/extramarital sex is acceptable, etc. ... We will be there to warn them to repent or perish.
"Like all of mankind, these children have a duty to fear God and keep his commandments. ... One of those commandments is to warn your neighbor that their sins are taking them to hell. ... WBC must warn them!"
A news release has a further explanation of why Clayton High School was chosen.
"We will give your children an opportunity to see what truth looks like, the face of what they were entitled to have from every adult that ever touched their lives! You brutish teachers and hateful parents have broken the moral compass of this generation, teaching rebellion with everything you say and do."
The message concludes: "GOD'S CURSE IS ON YOUR BRATS, DOOMED AMERICA!"
In an interview Tuesday, Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of eight daughters of church founder Fred Phelps, said the timing of the protest dovetailed nicely with the group's travel plans going from the Super Bowl back to Topeka, Kan., but she said the school "was on our radar because we get tweets and things.
"One thing leads to another. All these students have been so mistreated. They have been so lied to. They have no hope for eternity."
Phelps-Roper said that the act of being outside the school is a display of God's mercy and salvation. "The students at that school need it badly," she said, "so off we go."
She said she has seen what she called the result of sin and ignoring God's word in the destruction brought to Lambert Airport by last year's tornado. Asked what she thinks of public opinions of the church by those who object to its picketing, she responded:
"We don't give two shakes about what they think about what they are doing. ... It's our job to please God, and that is what we are going to do."
The Renegade Son
Phelps-Roper said the choice of Clayton High School for picketing had nothing to do with the appearance there last year of her brother, Nate Phelps, who broke away from his father as a teenager and has long lectured against his beliefs.
Phelps was invited to speak by the school's Equality Club -- formerly the Gay-Straight Alliance. (You can view his talk online here.)
Phelps told the Beacon Tuesday that he wasn't sure whether his talk last year was connected to the picketing. "They have made a very public show of ignoring me, but they don't really ignore me. This is the first time they have been this overt.
"I'm convinced it has at least something to do with my being there. That club is pretty active and pretty confident in showing its face to the community, so that is going to attract attention."
Phelps, who is 53, said he broke away from his father when he was in his early teens and ran away from home on the night of his 18th birthday. He now lives in Calgary, Canada, where he drives a bus for a living and runs what is called the Center for Inquiry, which he described as a secular humanist group that promotes science and reason. He is also on the board of a group known as Recovering from Religion.
He said his humanist outlook naturally supports equality for all groups, and it serves as "a countervoice for the very clear voice against the gay community that my family puts out."
He said the students he encountered at Clayton "are very bright. They understand the issues. I think they'll do very well, putting out a positive countervoice to what the church is doing."
Asked if he ever has any contact with his father, Phelps said that he accidentally spoke with him for about 45 seconds on a radio show in the mid-1990s.
"He called, and the radio host cut him off," Phelps said. "It sounds kind of humorous, but that's the nature of my relationship with my father."
Losos said she first heard about the upcoming picketing from Clayton police, who had been contacted by the church and asked for protection. She said she understood that such contact was standard procedure.
She said she had heard a rumor that pickets from Westboro would be coming last year, but they never did.
In a message to the high school community last Friday, Losos said that the church "is known for their provocative, hate-filled protests throughout the country, especially for protesting at the funerals of fallen servicemen. We have already started meeting with the Clayton Police and district leadership to plan for this event. Next week, we will be working with our teachers and students to craft a positive, peaceful and appropriate response."
She said that response is still being formulated, but "the message we are sending to our student body and anyone else who talks about it is we want to stay positive. It's about celebrating our community and what we believe in and not about Westboro. It's about celebrating us, not attacking them."
She said the reaction from the community so far has been overwhelmingly positive.
"The common theme is that they are proud of their students, proud of their community," she said. "That is why they moved here, and they have offered support for whatever we might need -- help with students, protesting with us, legal services. They just support us tremendously."
In the end, Losos wants to make sure that whatever the high school does in response to the picketing is a firsthand civics lesson.
"That's why we are educators," she said. "That is definitely what we do."