Ignorance not excuse for insensitivity

By Trevor Ballanger

I’ve always felt a sense of pride for who I am and where I come from, though at times it wasn’t easy. Some may think that being gay and coming from a highly religious family in southern Iowa would be rough, and they would be right.

But in a lot of ways I was luckier than I realized at that time. There has always been a strong support system of friends and family around me, and I’ve never had trouble being protected when I was vulnerable to the harsh reality that is homophobia. My dad even protected my rights by serving as a sergeant first class in the Army.

As a person with close ties to both the military and LGBTQ community, freedom of speech is inevitably something of importance to me. The freedom to speak one’s mind has led to the ever-progressing society we live in today. Without it, there would be no marriage equality in any state. Without the voice of women, the 19th Amendment wouldn’t have passed. But, as in many situations, there is always something that makes us question our morals and the extent to which our rights should be taken. In this case, it’s the Westboro Baptist Church.

They call themselves a church, but have many characteristics of a cult. Its congregation consists of one extended family raising their children to be homophobic, anti-Semitic and unpatriotic. Approximately 40 members actively seek out military funerals, gay rights rallies and other events like the Super Bowl to disparage any lifestyle other than their own.

The church’s official website, GodHatesFags.com, claims they hold peaceful protests. They stand together in allotted areas where they can legally protest and hold signs declaring “God Hates Fags” and “God Hates America.” Passersby are harassed but there is nothing peaceful about calling someone a “fag” or thanking God for dead soldiers at a military funeral.

And the question remains: If you hate America so much, why don’t you leave? The answer is because they know they don’t have to. By using the same First Amendment they hide behind, they may also relentlessly denounce it. There’s a blatant hypocrisy in the way they take advantage of civil rights and the men and women who fight to protect them.

In a FOX News segment, reporter Sean Hannity interviewed church member Shirley Phelps Roper. Hannity told Roper they should be ashamed of their use of religion to justify their hatred and thanking God for AIDS and improvised explosive devices. Roper smiled and said, “Thank God for 9/11. Thank God for dead soldiers.”

My immediate reaction was that this woman and her family need to be silenced. It’s unbelievable to me that they are allowed to get away with such abrasive—and perhaps treasonous—actions. Every time I hear them, it’s as if they’re standing in front of me saying they want me dead. At the very least, what they do should be considered a hate crime and not free speech.

When a troop from my hometown died on Jan. 19, I saw many pictures online of the community displaying hundreds of flags along the streets in his honor. There was such an outpouring of gratitude and love for this one person that I felt personally attacked when I heard the Westboro Baptist Church would be making an appearance at his funeral. My sister said our town was in an outrage, and I began to worry about how people would react. I began to think about my few experiences with hate and imagined the signs and words of this group calling me a “fag” or telling my father he’s going to hell. Naturally, it made me less than happy.

But as much as it disappoints me to hear and see these things, I know that trying to take any action against them would be fruitless. Nothing will be able to change these people’s minds about how they see the world.  According to the Anti-Defamation League, 41 states have tested the legal bounds of legislation to limit the group’s excessive nature. Four states have challenged the constitutionality of freedom of speech and religion.

However, the Supreme Court has made a habit of siding with the Westboro Baptist Church. In Baltimore, they were taken to court in 2007 for violating privacy rights and inflicting emotional distress during a military funeral and ordered to pay $5 million. When the Supreme Court heard the case in 2011, it said the group was within its rights to debate public issues and were cooperative with police, so the case was thrown out.

During a gay-rights rally at the University of Iowa, the church showed up and gave their best shot to bring out the worst in people, but their hate didn’t work. My friend Tatum called me crying minutes after the rally to tell me she loved me. It was in that moment that I realized we have nothing to worry about.

They might have the freedom to condemn the country they live in as evil, but the right to free speech goes both ways. I have the right to say they’re wrong. The 40 people standing for hate are no match for the millions of people who don’t.