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Maui churches decry protest organized by Kansas group

Westboro Baptist Church plans to picket at Maui High on Friday

Westboro Baptist Church members Gabriel Phelps-Roper, 10, and his sister Grace Phelps-Roper, 13, both of Topeka, Kan., protest at the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder in Westminster, Md., on March 10, 2006. The church, labeled as a hate group by some national organizations, says that it plans to picket in front of Maui High School on Friday to protest a transgender athlete playing on a girls volleyball team. AP file photo

Maui Baptist churches are denouncing and disassociating themselves from the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, a widely recognized hate group that has announced plans to protest at Maui High School on Friday.

“It’s sad that people who claim to represent Christ would do so so poorly,” Jay Armstrong, lead pastor at Kihei Baptist Chapel, said Monday. “When you study who Jesus is and you ask most people what they think of Jesus, they realize He’s a wonderful person. But (there are) people who often would rather be seen for their religion than for who He is.”

The Maui County Baptist Association, a network of nearly a dozen Southern Baptist-affiliated churches that include Kihei Baptist, issued a unanimous statement denouncing Westboro, emphasizing that while they may share a name, they do not share values.

“For 70-plus years, we, the MCBA churches and their members, have joyfully and lovingly served our community in numerous ways, chiefly by declaring the good news that Jesus Christ came to save sinners,” the association said. “We denounce the actions of Westboro Baptist Church that brings reproach on the good news of Jesus Christ.

“Let us be clear, we have zero associations with this group.”

Meanwhile, Maui High planned to have classes as usual Friday and encouraged the community not to engage with the protesters.

“We want Maui High to ignore and avoid the protesters,” Principal Jamie Yap said Monday. “We do not want to engage. We are not having an anti-protest demonstration. It has been shared with our staff today and that’s going to be shared with the community again. . . . We will ignore and not engage.”

On Dec. 18, Westboro posted a news release on its website saying that it planned to stage a protest at Maui High after another high school on Maui allowed a transgender athlete to play on one of its teams earlier in the year.

The Topeka, Kan., organization has gained notoriety across the country for picketing the funerals of military veterans and mass shooting victims, and waving derogatory and inflammatory signs at schools, churches and other organizations that are supportive of the LGBTQ community.

Westboro members said via email Monday that “Lord willing, we will be there.” They did not yet know how many people they planned to bring.

When asked why they were protesting at Maui High when the athlete actually played for Kamehameha Schools Maui, they replied that “it doesn’t matter what high school it happened at.

“The fact is, high schools across the entire nation are teaching children to proudly support sin and rebellion against God, so every high school is appropriate to preach at,” the members said.

In response to local Baptist churches’ denunciation, they added that “God does, in fact, hate all workers of iniquity (Psalm 5:5).”

“And Jesus did, in fact, come to save sinners who repent and believe on Him,” they said. “We preach both of those things. False prophets only preach the parts of the Bible that they like, while treacherously denying the rest. False prophets will face the wrath and hatred of the Holy God that they are denying.”

Founded in 1955 by Fred Phelps and made up primarily of his extended family, Westboro Baptist has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which calls it “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” and the Anti-Defamation League, which describes it as “a small virulently homophobic, anti-Semitic hate group.”

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected Westboro’s right to protest. While nearly 700,000 people signed five petitions asking the White House to designate Westboro as a hate group in 2013, the White House said the federal government does not maintain a list of hate groups, but rather leaves that task to private organizations.

In the meantime, it’s a challenge for Baptist churches who have tried to distance themselves from Westboro’s rhetoric. Armstrong said that Baptist churches are historically autonomous and operate independently, which results in “a very broad spectrum of beliefs and practices.”

“That’s why you can have a group so radical” claiming the Baptist name, Armstrong said.

In their statement, the Maui Baptist churches emphasized that “the true message of Jesus is not ultimately that God hates sinners, but that in His great love He sent His Son, Jesus, to redeem them.

“The message of Jesus is summed up in 1 John 4:9 — ‘In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through him,’ ” the association said. “Tragically, this message is not what is heard from Westboro, but it will come from us until we draw our last breath. We love you Maui, and we’re here to say God does too.”

In the end, Armstrong hopes the actions of local churches will have a longer-lasting impression than a one-day protest.

“I don’t know that we’ll counterprotest or anything like that,” he said. “I think the best thing we can do to help is just help our people be the loving, caring people God wants us to be, and as they are interacting with their friends, their neighbors, their coworkers, their families, that’s going to counteract what’s happening here.”

Meanwhile, county and state officials are preparing for Westboro’s arrival. Maui police spokesman and acting Lt. John Sang said Monday that “so far as we know,” Westboro still planned to protest from 7:30 to 8 a.m. Friday.

“We will have a presence to ensure the safety of everyone who may be present,” Sang said.

The state Department of Education said in a statement that “Maui High is coordinating with the county and law enforcement to prepare for the protest to keep students, parents and staff safe from any possible conflict.

“Teachers and counselors will be ready to support students and guide them to positive outlets to make the protest a teachable moment,” the DOE said. “School security will be present at all times to ensure that safety is maintained for all parties.”

Yap encouraged the community to stay away.

“These guys, in my opinion, they’re trying to get a rise out of the community,” Yap said.

“Engaging them will not be in anybody’s best interest.”

At least one organization, Parasol Patrol, put out a call on Facebook for supporters to help in “shielding kids from hate at Maui High.” The group said it was formed to protect kids from hate speech by protesters and has made appearances around the country with large, rainbow-colored umbrellas to block the sight of picket lines often staged by Westboro.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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