Montgomery County Students Advocate for Gay Rights in Response to Westboro Baptist Church Visit

Miriam Minsk, News Editor

Signs dry in the hallway, ready for the rally after school on Tuesday.
Signs dry in the hallway, ready for the rally after school on Tuesday.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a group from Kansas notorious for railing against gays, Jews and others, will be protesting at Churchill High School on Tuesday afternoon at 2 p.m. Students had initially organized a counter protest, but the administration forbade them from conducting it during school hours. Churchill students will instead conduct a rally after school ends.

According to the Westboro Baptist Church website, the protest will be at Churchill because a school with good academics should know better than to have a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). According to Southern Poverty Law Center, the church does not receive any outside funding; the majority of their profit comes from inducing others to violate the laws of peaceful protesting, and then suing those who do. This seems to be a pattern of the church’s, and though many schools have GSAs, the church might be targeting Churchill because it is known to be a wealthy school.

Immediately after the church members announced their plan to protest at Churchill, students began to plan a counter protest through Facebook. 440 local students joined the event, agreeing to oppose the Westboro Baptist Church protesters. But on Nov. 2 Churchill Principal Joan Benz forbade students from conducting a counter protest during the school day.

“There will be no counter protest and the event is not an excuse for missing school,” Benz wrote in an email to Churchill parents this past week.

On the Facebook event, organizers announced that a student-run rally will be conducted after school ends, instead of a counter protest. This rally is not a school sponsored event.

CESJDS junior Joey Rushfield was planning to leave school early on Tuesday in order to attend the counter protest at Churchill, but can no longer make the rally. Rushfield attended DC’s Pride Parade in June and said that some Westboro Baptist Church members were “spewing some really incohesive nonsense.” There, he stood up to them by explaining that “if you want to make some more sense, then maybe your message will be more well received.”

Benz has not specified why she has prohibited students from protesting during school, but one possible reason is that she was concerned about student safety and wanted to avoid any possible lawsuits. Rushfield, however, thinks that it is important to protest.

“If we don’t protest, then the media will cover [the Westboro Baptist Church’s] message and not focus on a true healthy message of acceptance and universal love,” Rushfield said. “As students, especially at JDS, a very inclusive and pluralistic school, we need to be able to show that message whenever we can — especially when there are others trying to fight against it.”

However, junior Talia Benheim believes that counter protesting will give the church unnecessary attention and might even give their message an appearance of legitimacy.

“I don’t think that they are actually a threatening group or that people actually listen to their message,” Benheim said. “I feel that they will see that they have an impact if people stand up and protest against them, and will come target our community again.”

In addition to the after school rally, Churchill students will conduct a Unity and Pride Day on Tuesday. The day was partially coordinated by Churchill’s Sources of Strength (SOS) club, a group of peer leaders that promote school spirit and attempt to decrease student depression and suicide. According to Churchill junior and SOS member Samantha Redlich, many students are going to wear rainbow colors on the day of the protest, and some are even going to paint their cars to match.

For Redlich, the protest and the reaction of the community to the protest has made her proud to attend Churchill. She said that the event has brought many students together that would not normally talk to each other.

“It made me appreciate my school a lot more,” Redlich said.

Benz announced in the email she sent to parents that the Montgomery County police are aware of the Westboro Baptist Church protest and will ensure that students are dismissed safely from school on Tuesday. The Westboro Baptist Church will also be protesting against abortion and gay rights at Rockville High School on Tuesday and at Sidwell Friends school on Wednesday.