There are few groups as controversial as Westboro Baptist Church. Founded by Fred Phelps, the infamous “God Hates Fags” organization exists to thwart the gay agenda or protest the Armed Forces or whatever other enemy strikes it as worth attacking, but the Kansas-based church also does a damn good job of generating ample amounts of press coverage.

Which brings us to this week’s news that the group might crawl forth from their Topeka headquarters and slouch toward Charleston with the intent of protesting outside of the funerals of the Emanuel Nine.

As anyone who follows Westboro knows, they may and they may not. A simple announcement that they will protest, and the resulting press coverage, is often enough to get its message out. And in the case of the Holy City, Mayor Joe Riley and City Council may be giving the Kansas-based church even more copy in the form of a hastily drafted ordinance blocking protesters from protesting within 300 feet of any funeral. 

Last night when news of the ordinance was first reported on Twitter, I immediately noted that this type of ordinance has previously been viewed as unconstitutional and that the city’s very actions could further entice Westboro to come to Charleston. Some of the church’s leaders are lawyers and they are more than prepared to take on a First Amendment fight … which they would, I imagine, win. But the unconstitutionality of the ordinance didn’t stop Riley and company from passing this:

[embed-1] [embed-2]Surely, someone on the city staff should have weighed in and stopped this nonsense. But they didn’t. And so the ordinance passed unanimously.

None of this, mind you, is a defense of Westboro Baptist, nor is it meant to sully what is meant to be a solemn occasion for the grieving. My heart goes out to the families of the Emanuel Nine, the members of Emanuel AME, and the Charleston community at large — I too am heartbroken. But I don’t think we need to trample on the Constitution to honor their memories.

If history serves as a lesson, the best way to stop Westboro is to set up counter protests, to fill the sidewalks and rights of way with Mother Emanuel supporters so that Fred Phelp’s followers can’t even come close to any funeral service. This is our duty. We must counter Westboro Baptist with our bodies, our compassion, not unconstitutional laws.

UPDATE: North Charleston City Council is meeting at noon today to discuss its own ordinance preventing protesters from picketing funerals.

Cover photo by Flickr user via