CMU promotes love and inclusion against the hatred of the Westboro Baptist Church

On Oct. 5th, more than a hundred people stood at the edge of Carnegie Mellon University’s campus and faced the handful of Westboro Baptist Church protesters picketing across the street on the Forbes Ave. and Morewood Ave. intersection. The crowd, a mix of Carnegie Mellon students, university professors, Trans Liberation members, and passionate bystanders, shouted in unison “Hey hey, ho ho, homophobia’s got to go!” Despite rain and the regular schedule of classes on a weekday, the group gathered mid-afternoon to demonstrate their intolerance to hate and distasteful worldviews. What was firmly cemented that afternoon was a sense of community and a dedication to promoting acceptance and love.

The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is a Baptist church and declared hate group based in Topeka, Kansas. Known for its hate speech against the LGBTQ community, American soldiers, and people with any other religious affiliation, the group has become known for its persistent picketing across the country. According to its website, the church has visited over 1000 cities, protesting at soldiers’ funerals, courthouses, high schools, memorials, and other churches. Its anti-homosexual rhetoric helped develop the church’s infamous role in popular culture.

The WBC’s anticipated presence caused tension and worry within the Carnegie Mellon community leading up to the picketing event. Many discussed methods to prohibit the group from picketing within the campus vicinity. The university stated in a school-wide email that though the WBC “has not been granted permission to use university property under the university’s policy for public demonstrations…protesters may still exercise their first amendment rights on adjacent public sidewalks or streets.” Indeed, with first amendment rights firmly sustaining the legality of their message, temporary bans from protesting are actually what financially drives the group. What is less commonly known about the WBC is that they profit heavily from being controversial.

Aside from each member’s requirement of giving 30 percent of their income to the church, litigation cases reveal that the WBC reaps immense financial benefits from its lawsuits. In 1995, the WBC won more than $100,000 against the Kansas’ Funeral Picketing Act because it was a violation of the First Amendment. In 2007, Shirley Phelps-Roper — the former spokesperson of the WBC — was charged for allowing her son to stand on an American flag. A federal judge found the law unconstitutional and the city of Bellevue paid Phelps-Roper $17,000. Other court cases rewarded the group tens of thousands of dollars in court fees.

This is what concerned the organizers of “Time to Shine,” Carnegie Mellon’s campus-wide counter-demonstrative event that gathered its members in solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Ultimately, the goal was to stand united peacefully and focus on the positive message of outshining hate. Members active in the advocacy community were fully aware of the fragility of such concentrated tension. The University anticipated similar thoughts, including in the last section of their email, “the open exchange and discussion of ideas and a diverse and inclusive community are core values of Carnegie Mellon University. We are committed to fostering an environment that honors both of those foundational principles. As a community, we must stand together against hate, while encouraging the free and civil expression of ideas and perspectives.”

Except for one arrest of an anti-protester, the demonstrations were largely peaceful. Victor Tavarez, lead organizer of “Time to Shine,” was proud of that achievement despite high tensions that day. “Carnegie Mellon University’s community proved that it can come together and defend its community members. ‘Time to Shine’ was more than just a response to a visiting hate group. It was about proving that when the time came, students, faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the Pittsburgh community can join together for each other.”

The message was clear and well-vocalized, even through the rain, heavy traffic, student flow, and numerous police forces. Tavarez, who managed the occasion and kept himself centered throughout the entire event, embodied the spirit of that day. “I have to admit, things didn’t all go as planned. I’m glad it didn’t. The community took the initiative today. We remained peaceful. We stood in solidarity. We made sure to outshine hate.”