The news: Westboro Baptist Church announced on Twitter that they are going to be protesting Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Seriously.
The group, which has attracted attention in the past for protesting the funerals of Sandy Hook victims, fallen soldiers, and even “Fast and the Furious” star Paul Walker, tweeted that they were buying plane tickets to South Africa:
In fact, the church’s recent twitter history is rife with tweets about the recently deceased South African leader. They thanked God for killing Mandela, but were adamant about explaining that it was not his race that upset them — it was merely the fact that Nelson Mandela divorced and remarried, or rather “pursued every lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life; he loved the praise of man more than the praise of God.” South Africa has somewhat limited free speech laws, however, banning the “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to harm,” so the church may be unable to protest in the way they seem to enjoy in the U.S.
The background: Westboro Baptist Church has become notorious for their tasteless protests in recent years. Their website domain name is www.godhatesfags.com: an apt name as most of their vitriol is directed at gay people. While Fred Phelps, a former civil rights attorney-turned-minister, founded the church in 1955, they developed their signature-brand of revolting and exploitative behavior many years later. The church is based in Topeka, Kansas, and picketed its first funeral under Phelps’ guidance in 1991. They gained national media attention for picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year old student from the University of Wyoming who was beaten to death for being gay. They are known for handing out highly offensive pamphlets at their “events” and heckling anyone who may disagree with them.
(The congregation is, creepily, mainly comprised of Phelps’ extended family — the whole congregation only amounts to about 70 people.)
The takeaway: I am a huge proponent of freedom of speech. As Voltaire said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” I do not oppose Westboro Baptist Church’s right to express themselves and their opinions. I do, however, find their choice of protests attention-seeking and somewhat pathetic. For this reason, let’s all agree to focus on Mandela’s legacy and ignore the crazy hatemongers trying to use his funeral to increase their visibility.