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Westboro Baptist Church Takes on Higher Ed, Targets Vassar College

by Debbie Sharnak, published

Samuel Perry / Samuel Perry /

Westboro Baptist Church -- best known for its protests and extreme ideologies against gay people -- has set its next picketing site at Vassar College, a small liberal arts school in Poughkeepsie, New York. Vassar, known for its diversity, tolerance, and active LGBTQ community, is being targeted, according to the Westboro website, to:

“...warn the students,  faculty, and alumni that the satanic policies of this nation, especially those of the colleges and universities, are causing God to pour His wrath out upon this nation. Doomed American academics fancy themselves to be smarter than God. They promote the fag agenda with all their might and mock the word of God and His messengers at every turn.”

Protesting colleges seems to be a new strategy for the Westboro Baptist Church, which has focused its past protests on churches that “welcome all," media events that will garner attention like the Oscars, and funerals of soldiers or people who have died from complications resulting from AIDs. Share this article: Tweet

While there have been repeated efforts to challenge the constitutionality of these protests as hate speech, the Supreme Court -- as recently as 2007 -- upheld their right to political speech, which they argued could not be liable for tort of emotional stress.

In this case, an award of $5 million was originally given to the father of a Marine whose funeral was picketed by Westboro. However, Snyder v. Phelps overturned the verdict by a vote of 8-1, allowing for the Westboro protests to continue and expand in the ensuing years. Tweet the decision: Tweet

Higher education is the newest frontier for Westboro and some initial responses were comical across the Internet. BuzzFeed published the “22 Reactions to Westboro Baptist Church’s Plan to Picket ‘Ivy League Whorehouse Vassar College” and spotlighted funny Facebook posts and Twitter messages from Vassar students and alumni.

However, students, faculty, and alumni also quickly mobilized -- through social media forums -- counter-protest campaigns for the day of the event, both online and in-person. Less than twenty-four hours after Westboro announced their intentions, over 1,600 people joined a Facebook group to discuss strategies, which proved to be just one of many that began to pop up throughout the day.

Their efforts varied, but all illustrated the passion pouring out from the larger Vassar community. Some students set a goal of raising $100 for every minute WBC will be at Vassar ($4500 total) for The Trevor Project, which is a national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services for LGBTQ youth. By Tuesday midday, the alumni support proved overwhelming--the project had raised over $20,000 with weeks to go still before the actual protests. Tweet at @TrevorProject: Tweet

Another group asked alum who could not be at the counter-protest in person to donate anything they could during the 45 minute protest to either the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center or Hudson River Valley Chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, and support “the Ivy League Whorehouse we all love so much.”

These Facebook groups also organized students to get together Monday night to organize the community on campus and plan teach-ins, both at the college and at remote locations around the country, during the time the WBC protest will be going on at Vassar. After an emotional night of planning and discussions, the meeting finally ended just before midnight and as one Vassar student noted, people left the gathering feeling energized and believing that the efforts would result in a response that would be both "multifaceted and powerful."

Check back for more coverage on this story as it unfolds.

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