How Should We Handle Hate Mongers?

How would you react if someone paced your street with a sign saying, "God Hates (Your Name Here)"? The Rev. Fred Phelps and members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., have targeted homosex

Feb 19, 2003 at 2:06 pm

How would you react if someone paced your street with a sign saying, "God Hates (Your Name Here)"?

The Rev. Fred Phelps and members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., have targeted homosexuals in just this way. Church members picket the funerals of AIDS victims and proclaim events such as the World Trade Center attack God's wrath over gay rights.

Phelps had planned to picket a Feb. 11 hearing on Covington's proposal to bar discrimination against gays in work and housing. His press release included his slogan, "God Hates Fags." Church members had also planned to protest at Hebrew Union College because Reform Judaism has adopted same-sex marriages.

Phelps and flock failed to show due to a cancelled flight, according to Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church's attorney.

"Sometimes you just have to say it's from the Lord," she says.

Phelps vows to reschedule, adding the Cincinnati School Board and Trinity Episcopal Church as targets.

What's the best way to handle public displays of hate such as Phelps' rallies or the Ku Klux Klan's infamous Fountain Square cross?

"There's a very strong impulse to do something about it," says Mark Potok, spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.

Potok says many people react to hate rallies by showing up to protest. The urge is justified but in the end usually benefits the hate group, he says.

"We've found it's a bad tactic," Potok says. "A lot of times you'll get violence from the counter-demonstrators. It brings the story from the Metro section to the front page. They want any kind of publicity they can get."

Instead, he recommends a synchronized event at a separate location. Participation is typically greater and gains more publicity than the hate rally, he says. Such events can also create a dialogue that wouldn't occur otherwise, Potok says.

Hebrew Union College planned to greet Phelps' visit in the fashion Potok recommends, holding a program about liberalism and education to coincide with the hate rally, according to Dean of Students David Komerofsky.

"We're also going to address how students should handle this type of situation if it ever happens to their congregation," he says.

The Rev. Don Smith, chairman of the Covington Human Rights Commission, suggests a more radical approach. Although Phelps' press release specifically targeted him, Smith encourages people to show kindness to hate groups.

"Of course I'm absolutely opposed to their point of view," he says. "But try to be concerned with them as people, not as hate-mongers."

If it's cold out, serve hot chocolate or coffee, Smith says.

But others believe direct action is necessary. Dave Miller, 54, is a white man who owns a photography business in Loveland.

"A lot of people say we should ignore them," he says. "It's easy for white people to ignore it. The silence is deafening."

Miller took action one of the first times the KKK put a cross on Fountain Square. During his morning commute, he decided to take it down.

"I felt it was up to the white Christians to say something about these people who distort Christianity," he says. "I went over and pulled the sandbags off the base and put it on its side."

He was charged with disorderly conduct, but the judge only ordered him to pay court costs.

"I told the judge the Klan should've been arrested for disorderly conduct," Miller says. "If I saw the Klan putting up a cross in my neighbor's yard and I didn't do anything, I'd be just as bad. Fountain Square is the community's front yard."

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.