Controversial group to face counter-protests at USF

Representatives from Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), a group wanting to expose the “soul-damning, nation-destroying filth” as it claims on its Web site, is scheduled to protest the USF Hillel Jewish Student Center and Catholic Student Center (CSC) on campus starting at 9:15 a.m. today.

And students from those centers will be there, too, taking advantage of what they call an opportunity, said Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, executive director and campus rabbi for USF Hillel.

“Everybody knows about (WBC), and my first intention was to simply ignore them,” Rosenthal said. “But when I saw that there were a number of independent student groups that were planning to counter-protest in front of Hillel’s property, I thought it … provided an opportunity for us to not only respond in a positive manner, but to potentially make a significant contribution and change to the overall atmosphere at USF.”

Rosenthal said he hopes to bring counter-protesters together to change the atmosphere from negative and potentially dangerous to a “celebration of diversity” between religions, ethnicities, political groups and approaches to life.

University Police (UP) will provide additional security in front of the two centers located on 50th Street, UP spokeswoman Lt. Meg Ross said in an e-mail.

USF Hillel and CSC made signs of a “positive nature” Sunday, Rosenthal said. Members from CSC were unavailable for comment.

WBC, a group based in Topeka, Kan., has performed about 43,150 sidewalk protests since 1991 in the U.S., Canada, Jordan and Iraq, according to its Web site. In protests, members show large picket signs displaying Biblical references and controversial sentiments like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates America.”

WBC’s manifesto states they are a “TULIP” church, teaching total depravity, unconditional love, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints, according to its Web site.

The manifesto ends with this statement: “Anyone preaching otherwise is a Hell-bound false prophet, a messenger of Satan, to whom we say, Anathema Maranatha (Let him be accursed of God).”

“For better or worse, such protests are part of our lives. We’re accustomed to it,
whether it’s protesting Israel or anti-Semitism in general. So the Jewish students’ attitude has been, ‘You know, ignore it. It’s not worth the effort,'” Rosenthal said. “It’s the other student groups that are personally offended by this organization, which is so hateful that they have stepped up and said, ‘No, we don’t want to ignore it. We want to make our voices heard about how unacceptable this is.’ We can’t squelch student voices.”

According to its schedule online, WBC will also protest outside of Plant High School and Tampa Catholic High School today. WBC picketed outside the University of Florida Hillel on Sunday.

Rosenthal claims today’s protest will be an example of “hate-speech”- something that will be up to students to stop.

“(WBC is just) making the rounds. If I’m not mistaken, they’re from Kansas, and it’s still pretty chilly there. They’re looking for an excuse to get some warmer weather,” Rosenthal said. “I hope that if students are in the area, they will come and peacefully stand and be a part of those who reject hate.”