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Pittsburgh High Schools And Universities Prepare For Westboro Baptist Church Protests

Carolyn Kaster
Fred Phelps Jr., of Topeka, Kansas, with the Westboro Baptist Church holds a sign in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, March 27, 2013. The Kansas-based church says they'll be protesting at various locations in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

UPDATED: Oct.5, 2017 at 9:25 a.m. 

Protesters from the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church plan to march through Pittsburgh’s Oakland and Downtown neighborhoods Thursday afternoon, according to the group’s website.

Joe Miksch, University of Pittsburgh director of media relations, said the university is taking steps to ensure safety of students, faculty and staff.

“We encourage our students to thoughtfully consider how they may want to respond or not respond to those expressing views they find offensive. Some groups are choosing to counter these ideas with separate efforts focused on promoting mutual understanding and respect, while others may decide to join peaceful events. We remind all students, regardless of their choices, to observe the law and the tenets of our student conduct policy,” he said.

Oakland Catholic and Central Catholic high schools, where Westboro plans to protest, will dismiss early to avoid confrontation.

Rev. Nicholas Vaskov, the executive director of communications for the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, said the schools are using the protest as a teachable moment in safeguarding the first amendment.

“As Catholics, we believe we are all created in the image and likeness of God and it’s not right to hate anyone,” he said. “It’s not that we want the students to turn a blind eye to what’s going on, but out of concern for their safety the decision was made to have them home before the protest began.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies Westboro as a hate group. A flyer for the various Pittsburgh protests doesn’t specify why the Pittsburgh schools are targeted but states that, “America is filled with universities that scramble to outdo each other in perversion.” According to the flyer, the group known for anti-gay messages will “preach Christ to universities.”

The flyer also quotes Carnegie Mellon University’s language for striving to make, “campus a supportive and affirming place for all intersections of identities, and provide specific resources for those individuals along the sexuality and gender spectrums.” Westboro calls that, “the folly you produce when you abandon all moral and biblical standards.”

According to the website, the first protest will start at Carnegie Mellon University at 1:30 p.m. The University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University are also listed as stops. Duquesne did not respond to requests for comment.

SisTers Pittsburgh, a non-profit that advocates for transgender and people of color, is organizing a counter-protest promoting inclusion for the transgender community. Organizers have asked supporters to bring instruments and noisemakers.

In a joint statement from SisTers PGH, Education Law Center of Pennsylvania and PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Pittsburgh the civil rights advocacy groups said the groups will fight to make sure students feel welcomed, safe and affirmed on campus.

“Protests organized by Westboro Baptist Church tend to be small, but their rhetoric of hate and hostility is loud – and the antithesis of the equality that all school children are entitled to under the law. Inclusive policies at schools should be applauded, not protested. We fully support policies and practices that affirm the dignity and civil rights of LGBTQ youth, and we stand in solidarity with our students, parents, and educators against hate,” according to the statement.

In an email sent to Carnegie Mellon University faculty and students, university representatives said Westboro had not been granted permission to use university property.

According to the letter signed by Laurie Weingart, provost and chief academic officer, and Gina Casalegno, vice president for student affairs, “The open exchange and discussion of ideas and a diverse and inclusive community are core values for Carnegie Mellon University. We are committed to fostering an environment that honors both of those foundational principles. As a community, we must stand together against hate, while encouraging the free and civil expression of ideas and perspectives.”

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police said in a statement that it does not currently have plans to close any roads, but that it might close streets on a case-by-case basis to "ensure the safety of the church members."

"We have a plan to ensure the safety of both people and property during this protest that includes uniformed and plainclothes police officers," said Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich in a statement.

Hissrich also urged people to avoid the areas of demonstration. 

Westboro has also planned a picket outside of Pine-Richland High School for Friday morning. The district made national headlines this year when it allowed students to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identities, following a discrimination lawsuit.

Brian Miller, Pine-Richland superintendent, wrote in a letter sent to parents that the district would coordinate with the Northern Regional Police Department to have officers outside of the middle school and high school.

“If it occurs, the demonstrators would stand on public property on Warrendale Road at the edge of the high school campus. The demonstrators are not permitted on district property,” Miller said in the letter.

He said the demonstration is scheduled to begin after students are in the building. During the 30-minute demonstration, he said all classes will remain inside the building.

*This story has been updated to include comments from multiple organizations. 

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
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