Westboro Baptist Church: A Call for Justice

TO: The Gonzaga University Community
FROM: Thayne M. McCulloh, Ph.D.
SUBJ: Westboro Baptist Church: A Call for Justice
DATE: October 11, 2010

Dear Gonzaga Students, Faculty, Staff and Administrators,

The recent news that Westboro Baptist Church (hereafter, "WBC") intends to "picket" Gonzaga University offers us the opportunity to engage in thoughtful discourse on many issues of real significance for our university and our time.  I am grateful that an event intended by its organizers to foster hate and deepen prejudice has instead elicited concern, attention, and even thoughts of activism; these are signs of Gonzaga at its best.
 
Having reflected on these matters with students and colleagues, I want to communicate with you on several issues that I believe we need to consider and share.
 
1) The core of the WBC's activism is a message of hate and fear.  The adherents of the WBC have chosen to focus their hatred in particular on those who are gay; they also target college students (whom they perceive to engage in activities that are an affront to God), and military personnel (whose deaths they attribute to God's retribution for human sinfulness).  The WBC's message gains its power in part because it is delivered in a manner intended to shock, threaten, or offend, eliciting strong reaction thereby.  Often the targets of their abuse are those who are suffering in some manner already.

2) A university exists to sponsor and facilitate the search for truth in the context of intellectual (academic) endeavor.  The occasion of the WBC picket provides us with an opportunity to respond in a thoughtful and uniquely academic manner regarding numerous dimensions that relate to such an event: hate and its expression; movement politics; Constitutional freedom; and social responsibility, to name a few.
 
Gonzaga, as a Jesuit, Catholic and humanistic university, has a special responsibility to actively respond to incidents of hatred and fear and to decisively counteract them.  Those of us in Jesuit institutions are called by the Church to serve as beacons of light and hope for all people, particularly those who are frequently marginalized and victimized by society.  We thereby follow in the footsteps of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who was himself actively engaged in the promotion of justice over four centuries ago.  Our well-known and highly regarded sense of community is itself marred, not infrequently, by incidents of sexism and sexual violence, ostracism and victimization on the basis of gender, gender orientation, racism, politics, religious beliefs, and socio-economic situation.  These are the evils which Jesus Christ addressed, and of which all major religions speak.
 
3) The WBC is not welcome on the Gonzaga University campus, and we will not permit them to picket or demonstrate on the private property which the university owns.  Through our evaluation of the WBC and its activities in other cities and campuses, we have determined the group is well aware of its constitutional rights and represented by experienced legal counsel.  It carefully communicates its plans to the police and media in advance in order to generate reaction, but also to clearly establish its legal right to publicly demonstrate on public property-and works hard to elicit maximum public exposure for its activities.  More often than not, the WBC demonstrators are women accompanied by children; rarely are men involved.  If WBC pickets are successful in evoking a physical confrontation with opponents, as has occurred, they will sue in the hope of obtaining monetary damages. Thus, the police are often on the scene to protect the peace at WBC demonstrations.
 
Gonzaga community members are advised that any violation of the law is likely to result in civil lawsuits as well as criminal charges.  In any event, members of our community are urged to thoughtfully consider the power they surrender by playing into the carefully crafted agenda of this group, which gains influence primarily through the attention given to it.  We invite individuals, external to the University but interested in taking a contra-position to the WBC, to consider the same approach.
 
Call to Action

I call therefore upon the entire Gonzaga community-students, faculty, staff, and administrators-to join me in responding to the voices of fear and hatred by actively taking part in one or more of the justice-oriented events currently being planned this fall.  A timely example: The Supreme Court of the State of Washington will be sitting in session at the Gonzaga School of Law on the very day of the WBC picket (October 21; Law School Moot Court Room).  
 
Let us together declare Thursday, October 21st, 2010 a Day for Justice. I invite all members of the GU community to wear Gonzaga apparel on that day, and for those who are not in class and wish to join together-not in a protest of the WBC, but in a witness for justice-to gather at the reflecting pool of St. Ignatius in front of College Hall at 11:30 a.m. The daily Mass in the Student Chapel that follows at 12:10 will include prayers of thanksgiving for all those who work to eliminate injustice.
 
The opportunity to support and celebrate efforts for justice will continue throughout the year.  Some upcoming events on campus include:
 
(1) Monday, October 11th 8:30-9:30 pm on the Steps of Crosby Student Center

Title: A Vigil for a Better Future

Description: LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) youth are at increased risk of suicide due to bullying and harassment and a recent wave of suicides on campuses like Rutgers have touched the hearts and minds of many. The LGBT Resource Center will be hosting a candlelight vigil to remember and recognize LGBT youth who have committed suicide or may be contemplating it. This will serve as a chance to join in solidarity with the LGBT community in anticipation of a better future in which hate and discrimination are distant memories for all.  This event is open to the entire Campus Community.
 
(2) Tuesday, Oct. 12, the Gonzaga Institute for Hate Studies will present the "Eva Lassman: Take Action Against Hate Award, Individual" to Gonzaga Associate Academic Vice President Raymond Reyes, Ph.D., a founding member of the Institute, at the Take Action Against Hate Annual Banquet. Kenneth Stern, J.D., an expert on anti-Semitism and extremism at the American Jewish Committee, will provide the keynote address on the topic of "Why Hate Matters."  The event also introduces the Institute's new director, John Shuford, J.D., Ph.D., who teaches Philosophy here at Gonzaga.
 
(3) Wednesday, Oct. 20, Gonzaga business faculty member Molly Pepper will conduct a Campus Climate Town Hall Meeting at 7:30 p.m. to explore the question: "Too Catholic, or Not Catholic Enough?" In light of the WBC intentions, issues of hate, discrimination and intolerance also will be discussed.  More information is forthcoming.
 
I thank you for your active participation in the life of this great university; may our collaborative efforts advance the cause of justice on our campus and throughout the world.

Thayne M McCulloh

Thayne M. McCulloh, D.Phil.
President
Gonzaga University

President
Thayne M. McCulloh, D.Phil.
509.313.6102
president@gonzaga.edu

Exec. Assistant to the President
Julia Bjordahl
509.313.6102
bjordahl@gonzaga.edu

Admin. Assistant
Geneva Finley
509.313.6103
finleyg@gonzaga.edu