The Westboro Baptist Church, a small religious sect based out of Kansas infamous for its anti-gay views and pickets of places or events they deem to be too LGBT-friendly, including military funerals, has announced that the church’s members plan to picket outside of Woodrow Wilson High School, in Northwest D.C., on June 9.
Wilson was placed in the crosshairs of the Westboro Baptist Church for its “LGBTQ Pride Day” celebration, scheduled for June 4. The school held its very first Pride Day last year, organized by the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and championed by biology and environmental science teacher Chris Obermeyer. Last year’s event featured poetry readings, musical performances, booths with literature and resources featuring several LGBT community organizations, and was partly sponsored by some of those organizations, as well as the Mayor’s Office for GLBT Affairs. Students also signed pledges promising to be more respectful of their LGBT peers.
On its website, Westboro delivered a screed against the students at Wilson High School, claiming they “celebrate and glory in sin,” and quoting parts of the Bible.
“Wilson High, we’ve got one simple question for you… Why did God destroy Sodom?” the post reads. “You boast of being the first public high school in Washington, DC and perhaps the nation to host an ‘LGBTQ Pride event’ when you should be hanging your heads in shame for such a thing. How incredibly shameful it is that your parents and teachers won’t simply tell you the truth. You each have a duty and it’s very simple: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
“You celebrate and glory in your sin. You say ‘You can’t hide tiger pride?’ and you’re right,” the post continues. “You are incapable of being ashamed of your sin… So Wilson, since your teachers haven’t taught you the basic lesson of why God destroyed Sodom, we’ll help you out. It has to do with where the word sodomite came from.”
The protest is expected to be short, lasting from 8:15 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. outside the school, before the Westboro members move on to other protest sites throughout the District, including in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and Arlington National Cemetery. Their day of action on June 9 follows two other days, June 7 and June 8, during which the church will protest or picket at the Capital Pride Parade, and outside of various Washington churches, including the Metropolitan Baptist Church, the Bible Way Temple, and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Westboro’s announcement of their plans to picket has already sparked a counter-protest. Students from the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and Student Government Association quickly initiated the push to hold their own demonstration, and began spreading the word via social media. The students have created a Facebook group named “Westboro Meet and Greet,” which has a guest list that has grown to more than 900 members.
Obermeyer is excited and proud of his students for their initiative.
“I’m really impressed by their organizing,” he says of how rapidly the counter-protest idea took hold. “Hopefully, with some press coverage, this will encourage students at other schools to find their own ways to create change. And the level of outreach from the surrounding community has been overwhelming.”
A spokesman for the Mayor’s Office of GLBT Affairs, which, under Mayor Vincent Gray (D), helped cosponsor last year’s Pride celebration, declined to comment on the matter.
Devin Barrington-Ward, the communications director for Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who represents the ward where Wilson is located, said that Cheh will be out of town on June 9, but Barrington-Ward will be attending the counter-protest as a representative of the office.
“Councilmember Cheh is so proud of the students at Wilson High School, who have decided to show their commitment to LGBT rights and equality by counter protesting the members of the Westboro Baptist Church,” Barrington-Ward said in a statement. “By staging this counter protest, the students at Wilson High School are sending a strong message that Ward 3 and the District of Columbia is no place for hatred and bigotry.”
Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), a candidate for mayor who has a number of constituents on both sides of Rock Creek Park who attend Wilson, also declined to comment at this time. But a spokesman from her office told Metro Weekly that the councilmember would be attending the counter-protest.
Openly gay Councilmember David Catania (I-At-Large), who is also a candidate for mayor, issued a statement on Wednesday regarding Westboro’s decision to picket Wilson High.
“Earlier this morning I spoke with Principal Pete Cahall and the faculty and students of Woodrow Wilson High School who are organizing the school’s Pride Day celebration to thank them for standing up for the values of acceptance and equality that define the District of Columbia,” Catania said in the statement. “As I told the students, they are reaffirming the District’s legacy of inclusiveness and respect. This is the city where Mildred and Richard Loving sought refuge and the freedom to love the person of their choice when the state of Virginia barred them from marrying because of the difference in the color of their skin. More recently, it is the same city that was at the forefront of the fight for marriage equality. Today, I urge all District residents to stand with the students at Woodrow Wilson High School in support of tolerance and respect.”
[This story was updated to include responses from the offices of Councilmembers Cheh and Bowser.]