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The State of Aloha

The first time I saw them was in law school on campus. The temperature was in the upper 90s; the humidity felt like 100 percent. This was Lawrence, Kan., on a sweltering and wretched summer’s day. I was new to Kansas and everything was novel–even the heat.

There were other novelties. A group of plainly dressed white men, women and children silently standing in front of a building holding signs were something from a different planet for me. The words “God Hates F-gs” were displayed in black letters over an ironically rainbow-colored background. It was shocking and distasteful. What’s the deal with these people?

Everyone at my law school seemed embarrassed by them, like an obnoxious, black-sheep family member uncle no one wanted to recognize or discuss. They were members of a church in Topeka, about 26 miles west of Lawrence.

The Westboro Baptist Church was founded by Fred Phelps in the late 1950s. Phelps promoted an aggressive form of worship. Most of the church members are part of the Phelps clan. Nine of his 13 children are still in the church along with his children and grandchildren.

He also started a law firm with his five children to bring and defend lawsuits for the church. Phelps, himself a lawyer, would later lose his license from the Kansas Supreme Court for professional misconduct.

Phelps and his children sued everyone for nearly everything. He sued the local governments, Ronald Reagan and Washburn University, his alma mater, after three of his children were denied admission.

In 1991, Phelps introduced a tactic that would later propel them into the national spotlight. He began picketing sites he believed to be accommodating to gays and lesbians in Topeka. Church members once stood outside a local restaurant every day for three years simply because its owner knowingly hired a lesbian employee.

The church drew national attention with the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the victim of a vicious and deadly hate crime in Laramie, Wyo. The church showed up with its shocking signs condemning homosexuality and gay culture.

Even after Phelps’ death in 2014, the church remains aggressive and obnoxious. It has taken the extreme view that the United States is condemned because it has provided the LGBTQ community with a modicum of equality in the workplace, military, and other aspects of public life.

Their targets appear to be at random. Pop star Justin Bieber, for example, was not using his worldwide fame to spread the word of God. They picketed his concerts. Bill Clinton’s mother, Sonny Bono, Lady Gaga and even Bob Dole–the Dan Inouye of Kansas–were subject to the church’s demonstrations at some point in time.

Can they be stopped? Surely everyone agreed that church members who disrupt funerals for soldiers or the child victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings ought to be shut down, right?

Not exactly. Relying on the First Amendment’s right to assemble and protest peacefully as a defense, the church has litigated its position all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States. And it won. It apparently had the right to protest–like any other group–against whatever the members see fit.

But just because a group’s activity is constitutionally protected–like making pornography, buying guns, and spending millions of dollars to support a candidate for election–doesn’t make it a good idea. In fact, the church is considered a hate group by civil rights associations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.

I thought I would never have to see those dreadful signs and people after I graduated, left the Sunflower State and came home. I was wrong. After news spread that a transgender high school athlete on Maui was allowed to participate on a sports team, the church issued a press statement.

“Transgenderism is so historically ingrained in Hawaiian culture,” it went, “that they even have a term for it: ‘Mahu.’ “ While the transgender athlete was allowed to participate at a different high school on Maui, the church has planned a protest in front of Maui High School on Jan. 10 from 7:30 to 8 a.m.

The school sent out letters to students warning them and to ensure their safety. Our community is planning a counterprotest in the wake of this press release. The police and the FBI have also been working with school authorities to ensure a safe and peaceful demonstration (and possible counterdemonstration). Tensions could run high.

But it may be for naught. The church is known for issuing press releases and not showing up. If they do show up, it would be the first time a Maui school became the target of the group. Like the Super Bowl, the Grammy Awards and the United States Holocaust Museum, Kahului will witness the vitriol I thought I left behind in Kansas. Auwe.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer currently working in the Office of the Public Defender who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. The State of Aloha alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s ìNeighbors.

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