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Gonzaga Reacts To Church Protesters

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Today [Thursday], members of the Westboro Baptist Church, based in Kansas, plan to picket near Gonzaga University. The church is known for its protests around the nation, picketing funerals of military members who are killed overseas, among other things. According to a letter from President Thayne McCulloh to the Gonzaga campus community this week, the group planned to target people who are part of Spokane’s LGBTQ community and people in military service. In the letter, McCulloh says members of the group are not allowed to picket on campus or private property owned by the university.

The Westboro church has been condemned by many segments of American society and there’s disagreement about how to react to its protests. Some human rights activists say the best way to combat them is to ignore them, that publicity is what they desire. Kristine Hoover from Gonzaga’s Institute for Hate Studies doesn’t advocate that approach, nor does she support actively confronting Westboro members.

“One of their goals is to engage people in ways that might result in litigation and then that litigation, in turn, provides revenue for the Westboro Baptist Church and that’s, historically speaking, what’s been documented," Hoover said.

"We really are playing into somebody else’s agenda, instead of writing our own agenda. Fundamentally, I think it’s important to stand for what it is you believe in so that you are a part of moving the agenda forward," she said. "At the same time, the Westboro Baptist Church has an agenda that is very provocative. If you look at the history of how they engage with the community, their signage, their language, their philosophies can be, and rightly so, very angering. And when people are provoked, sometimes we don’t respond the way we would respond if we weren’t in that provoked stage.”

In his letter, McCulloh asked Gonzaga employees and students to wear university-themed clothing today and announced the university would hold an Interfaith Vigil for Peace on campus around the lunch hour today. He urged those who do confront Westboro members to do so peacefully and to follow the orders of campus security and police officers.

Coincidentally, or maybe not, the Gonzaga Institute for Hate Studies is marking its 20th anniversary Friday with an event that looks back on the organization’s work.

Kristine Hoover says the Westboro Baptist Church visit allows the community to make a statement about its values.

“I think, fundamentally, silence is complacency and so we cannot be silent. I don’t think that ignoring is the answer, but I think, how do we document what’s happening here so we know what’s going on?" Hoover said. "We’re not going into this blindly. And at the same time, how do we create the messaging that we think matters. There are lots of groups that are doing great work, for example, Life After Hate, and so, with their approach on social media, any time a hate message is retweeted, their organization, their non-profit, receives additional funding.

"It’s a little bit like the Lemons-to-Lemonade strategy that the Kootenai County Task Force has used here in our community, when there was going to be a march in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho with the Aryan Nations. The longer the Aryan Nations marched, the more money that was raised for educational purposes in the community,” she said.

The Gonzaga Institute for Hate Studies will hold a public event, beginning at 6:30 Friday night. Nadine Strossen, the former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, will speak via teleconference from Washington, D.C. with a panel discussion scheduled after that. The event will be held in the Hemmingson Center ballroom on campus.