Miami University is moving ahead with preliminary plans to bring Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) to speak on campus in October.
The religious group is known for picketing soldiers’ funerals. The group is widely recognized for controversial picket signs they carry which are printed with phrases such as “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled March 2 that the church is allowed to picket at fallen soldiers’ funerals on the grounds of First Amendment rights.
Often, universities find themselves the unwilling target of a WBC picket.
But a controversial picketing session is not in the pipeline for Miami when the group comes to speak on campus with faculty members and select students Tuesday, Oct. 25.
College of Arts and Science Dean Phyllis Callahan approved the department of comparative religion’s proposal for the visit Monday morning. Callahan said via e-mail she is consulting with the department but was not available for further comment.
Westboro Baptist Church spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper will be the only campus visitor, comparative religion professor Liz Wilson said.
Westboro Baptist Church could not be immediately reached for comment.
The church has already notified the university, however, of plans to picket an unspecified event in Cincinnati during their stay in Ohio. Wilson said Phelps-Roper has given the university “her word” that WBC will not picket Miami or Oxford.
Wilson hopes the university community will learn more about the family and followers of Westboro Baptist Church because of the visit.
“The intellectual discourse in our country, everyday, everyone is screaming at each other,” Wilson said. “It behooves us to listen to the screaming (and) try to engage it as human being-to-human being.”
One Miami student, Co-President of Spectrum Billy Price, has seen the Westboro Baptist Church picket at a past rally he attended.
“From what I can gather, they’re essentially a group that spews hatred and incurs violence,” Price said. “I think if we can keep it respectful, that’d be the goal. (But) I’ve found they’re often challenged with keeping things respectful.”
Price said although he is interested to see what the group has to say, he hopes the Miami community will come together to speak out against the church’s beliefs.
“That’s one of the great things about groups like these, they represent a great opportunity for all walks of life to work together and produce some synergies that we wouldn’t otherwise see,” Price said. Documents obtained by The Miami Student stress Miami will not incur any costs because of the visit but the campus will need increased security during Westboro Baptist Church’s stay. The cost of such security has not yet been determined.
“That’s something I’ll have to investigate, we really don’t want the university to have to pay,” Wilson said, adding that the event’s co-sponsor, the student organization Comparative Religion Student Association, may be able to pay for such costs, if necessary.
Miami will not pay for travel costs associated with flying the members of the church from their Topeka, Kansas location.
An earlier proposal for the WBC visit included the possibility of a luncheon with students and faculty as well as visits to several comparative religion classes. These aspects of the visit have since been removed.
Now, the visit will only include a pre-recorded interview that will be played back later on campus for viewing as well as a visit to Visiting Assistant Professor Hillel Gray’s Religion 102 class.
This visit will be live for Religion 102 students but according to documents obtained by The Miami Student, the department may hold this interview in a separate room while live streaming to the class. Students may also have the option to opt out of the class, according to the documents. As of print time, the class had not been informed of the visit.
The president of the Comparative Religion Student Association, Bailey Morgan, hopes students will look at Westboro Baptist Church’s religion objectively.
“If the Dalai Lama is allowed to speak, this group is allowed to speak,” Morgan said.
“That’s their belief, and they’re entitled to it.”
UPDATED 9/20/2011 (6:05 p.m.)
Miami University now denies that a proposal from the comparative religion department to invite the Westboro Baptist Church to campus has been fully approved by Phyllis Callahan, Dean of the College of Arts and Science.
Comparative religion professor Liz Wilson told The Miami Student the proposal had been approved by Callahan on Monday, but Miami director of news and public information Claire Wagner told The Miami Student late Tuesday afternoon that the statement from Wilson was “errant.” Wagner said the proposal is still under review.
“That’s a mistake on the university side,” Wagner said. “There is a proposal, but it is still in flux, still in discussion.”
An e-mail sent by a reporter to Callahan Monday evening seeking further comment included a statement saying The Miami Student had been told she had approved the proposal.
A two-sentence e-mailed reply from Callahan did not give any clear indication that the proposal had not been approved.
“I am waiting for some more information from faculty in the Department of Comparative Religion. I will contact you after I get that information,” Callahan said via e-mail.
Miami’s administration is also trying to distance itself from the proposal, stressing the difference between a visit initiated by a university faculty member and a “university sponsored” event.
Lisa Dankovich, associate director of external communications for Miami, said the protocol for approving a university sponsored event involves different levels of administrative oversight.
“If it is sponsored by the university, a contract goes through [VP of Finance] David Creamer’s office, and is vetted by the general counsel,” Dankovich said. “In this situation, you’ve got a faculty member and those contracts do not resonate to the same levels.”
Wilson told The Miami Student Monday evening the proposal had made it as far as Callahan, who would have then n
otified Miami Provost Bobby Gempesaw, according to Wilson.
Since the proposal stipulated no university funds would be spent on the visit, it is unclear whether any financial contracts would have been involved.
In a statement released on Miami’s news and public information website, Miami President David Hodge said the university does not intend to endorse or give voice to the views of the Westboro Baptist Church.
“I want to make it perfectly clear, that this is a group whose focus on hatred and personal destruction is aberrant to the values we strive to instill at Miami. The attempt to study their actions in the classroom should not be misunderstood as condoning or accepting their hate-filled rhetoric,” said David Hodge, president of Miami University.
Reporting by Sam Kay, Editor in Chief