Let Westboro Baptist have their hate speech. We'll smother it with peace.

Romaine Patterson, right, in 1999, staged an angel counter-protest outside the trial of a man who was convicted of Matthew Shepard's murder.
Romaine Patterson, right, in 1999, staged an angel counter-protest outside the trial of a man who was convicted of Matthew Shepard's murder.
By Romaine Patterson
Sunday, March 6, 2011

When Westboro Baptist pickets came to her town, was ready for them

When I was a child, my mother taught me that if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. The first time I encountered the gay-bashing members of Westboro Baptist Church was in 1998, when they picketed the funeral of my close friend Matthew Shepard, who was beaten and left to die tied to a fence in rural Wyoming.

What most shocked me was that, even as I attended the funeral of someone who had been murdered in a hate crime, I hadn't realized how deeply some people hate.

It wasn't until I saw those neon-colored signs with their ugly words against the snowy Wyoming landscape that I understood what my community was up against.

When the Rev. Fred Phelps and his parishioners came back to Laramie the next year to protest at the trials of the men who murdered Matthew, they were in for a bit of a surprise. Several friends and I led a counter-protest, dressed as angels, silently encircling them, our huge outstretched wings blocking their vicious signs from view.

Having been face to face with the Phelps gang, my heart goes out to all the families, who, in their most vulnerable hour, have had to hear their cruel rants.

Westboro Baptist Church members realized that the more high-profile their protests, the bigger the response, so they started picketing at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. This past week, the Supreme Court upheld their right to do so. But where they go, angels have appeared as well, to form a living shield.

When Westboro announced that it would come to Tucson to parade around the funeral of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, gunned down in January in the attack against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Legislature hurriedly passed a law setting limits on how close protesters could be to mourners. What filled me with pride, though, was seeing another community take inspiration from our own Angel Action protest more than a decade ago, depicted in the play "The Laramie Project."

As others have across the country, folks in Tucson hunted up the PVC pipe and sheets and online pattern to make the costumes, and spread their wings.

To me, the lasting legacy of our counter-protest so many years ago is the that enduring power of drowning out noise with silence, of smothering hate with peace.

I understand why the father of a soldier killed in Iraq sued Westboro Baptist after members jeered at his son's funeral. It is natural to want to banish such an abhorrent spectacle so that no one else will have to bear what you did. But I agree with Wednesday's ruling by the Supreme Court, because I support free speech. I know that there were many who stood by when Phelps yelled "God hates fags" at the funerals of gays or those who died of AIDS, but who mobilized in outrage when his vitriol was spewed in the direction of our brave men and women in arms, who died protecting his freedom and ours.

Is it somehow more acceptable to protest at one funeral and not another? No. It is terrible every time it happens. And it is for that reason that the United States Constitution is blind in its devotion to free speech.

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