ROCKVILLE, Md. — Two members of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church made an appearance Tuesday at Rockville High School in Montgomery County, but they didn’t get the reaction they wanted. So should they have gotten media attention or a response from the student body or community for their brief appearance?
Later that day, several more church protesters appeared just a few miles away at Winston Churchill High School. The group did get a reaction, with scores of students, community members and counter-protesters coming in from the surrounding areas. Should Westboro, then, have gotten attention?
If you asked Rockville High School officials, the answer was “no.” But if you asked the Churchill community, the answer was a little different.
Westboro Baptist Church is known for its attacks against homosexuality and the Jewish community, and for protesting at high-profile military funerals, among other events. In the past, the group also has protested at high schools for various reasons.
Picketers at the two Maryland high schools carried signs saying “Bloody Obama” with photos of fetuses, “America is doomed” and “Thou shalt not kill.” It was unclear why they were at those schools in particular, though the church’s Rockville High School picket news release stated: “Depression, anxiety, suicide gestures, promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, etc – these are the norms” as their concern. There was little media at either picket.
Kalyani Chadha, assistant media professor at the University of Maryland, said whether or not Westboro should receive media attention depended on the outcome of the protests.
“I don’t think they should be silenced, it is after all free speech – hateful as it seems to some people – but I don’t think they need all the attention,” she said. “On the other hand, if there is something newsworthy happening, if it’s a big event, they should be covered.”
Part of that distinction is due to the fact that many are already familiar with what the group represents and says, Chadha said.
“There’s nothing very novel about what they do anymore,” she said.
In an effort to keep the day’s events from escalating, Rockville High School Principal Billie-Jean Bensen reached out to the community. In one email, Bensen informed the community that the church was planning to picket outside of the school and assured readers that she had spoken with the Rockville Police Department to ensure the visitors remained off school grounds.
“It is my suggestion that we simply go about our business … and do not engage or respond to these demonstrators,” she wrote in the email. “Their words and signs are meant to elicit an emotional response. If they don’t get that response, then they will not get the attention they are seeking.”
In another email sent to the community, Bensen offered alternatives for students frustrated with the advice to ignore the picketers. She said students were planning to wear orange to celebrate “Rockville High School unity” and posted pledges to be accepting and tolerant in the school’s main hallways, and reiterated her request of the community to ignore the picketers.
Facebook groups dedicated to counter-protests were full of conflicting requests to either amp up the counter-protest efforts or ease up on giving the group attention as school officials requested, with many of these posts restating the principal’s emails.
Some parents and community members agreed that a positive or neutral response was best, saying that the community has even benefited from knowing the controversial church was coming.
“If anything, it strengthened the community bond and unity out of the face of (everything),” said parent Michelle Sobel of the picketing.
Rockville High School’s Sexuality and Gender Acceptance (SAGA) club taught students about the LGBTQ community, and guest speakers explained how to respond to groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church, Student Government Association (SGA) President Adam Sarsony said.
“I think it’s important to note they aren’t letting their message spread through our community and we are taking steps to respond to the group … even if that response isn’t giving them any sort of attention,” Sarsony said.
Twinbrook Baptist Church, located almost directly across the street from Rockville High School, was determined to show support for the community, Pastor Jill McCrory said. Rainbow flags hung prominently from the windows, and a tent stood outside with snacks and plenty of clergy.
The church wanted to “show love in the face of hate and let the neighborhood know we we’re supporting them,” McCrory said. “We wanted to be a welcoming voice – we’re a fully welcoming” church.
“What they want is attention,” Sobel said. “Every person who hits their website and … shows up (at this picketing) is feeding their hate frenzy. However, as humans we’re innately curious.”
Colin Wineman and Andy Goldstein are Quince Orchard High School seniors who came to the Churchill picketing with a few friends to show support for the Churchill community. They held signs showing support for the students they knew would be leaving around the time the Westboro picketers were outside.
They counter-protested in protection of the students, Wineman said, rather than to support the picketers by giving them attention.
“We made sure all of our signs were positive toward the students rather than negative toward the (picketers),” Goldstein said. “I don’t care what they get out of it, we wanted the students to know we’re here.”
Of the dozens of community members that stood outside the school, several had bullhorns, and one student shouted expletives from one. The picketers left Churchill before they were scheduled to leave and the students were clearly satisfied with how the afternoon turned out.