Churches condemn Westboro hate speech, but challenge remains

By staff writers
19 Feb 2009

Six churches and Christian groups have spoken out against US anti-gay hate group Westboro Baptist Church, who proposed to picket in the UK on Friday. But some of them have been challenged about their own policies and attitudes to gay people.

The churches issued their statement after British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she had decided to prevent members of the Church from entering the country.

The Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Evangelical Alliance UK, Faithworks, the Methodist Church of Great Britain, the United Reformed Church and Bible Society-funded thintank Theos said: “We are dismayed that members of Westboro Baptist Church (based in Kansas, USA and not associated with the Baptist Union of Great Britain) might picket the performance of The Laramie Project in Basingstoke on Friday."

The play is about the horrific 1998 murder of Matthew Shepherd, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, who died in a 'queer bashing' incident. The Westboro church, a fundamentalist sect largely comprised of members of one family, picketed Shepherd's funeral and announced that he was "burning in hell".

The group is well known for its "God hates fags" posters. It recently lost a court case in Maryland, when it picketed the funeral of a dead soldier, and was sued by his father. Mathhew Snyder's father won US $5 million. The church has been ordered to post bond of more than $500,000 in property, including the church building (which is also home to leader Fred Phelps Sr) and the Phelps Chartered law office building.

Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis are also ordered to pay over $100,000 each by 30 May 2009. They plan to appeal.

The British church groups said today: “We do not share [Westboro's] hatred of lesbian and gay people. We believe that God loves all, irrespective of sexual orientation, and we unreservedly stand against their message of hate toward those communities.

They added: “Neither the style nor substance of their preaching expresses the historic, orthodox Christian faith. And we ask that the members of Westboro Baptist Church refrain from stirring up any more homophobic hatred in the UK or elsewhere.”

However, Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, says that a more self-critical approach is needed by Christians.

Bartley commented: “It is welcome that a number of churches and evangelical groups have made a public statement and joined the many others who are opposing Westboro Baptist church-style hate speech. But it is relatively easy to issue statements against extremists, distance oneself, and condemn them. It is more challenging, and uncomfortable, to acknowledge what one might have in common with those we find abhorrent. But that is what the message at the heart of the Christian faith requires."

He continued: “This is the real challenge that Westboro Baptist church presents. And among those who have condemned Westboro are some who preach rejection of faithful gay relationships, who deny their baptism and Christian ministry, and who refuse their wisdom. Some have attempted to negotiate opt-outs from equalities legislation so they can themselves discriminate against lesbian and gay people in employment and in the provision of goods and services. The Evangelical Alliance in particular removed the Courage Trust from its membership when the Trust made a Christian commitment to affirming lesbian and gay people.

Concluded Bartley: “The six churches and groups have said with one voice: ‘We believe that God loves all, irrespective of sexual orientation’. We invite them to reflect these words in their actions.”

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