On Easter weekend 2008, Steven Sueppel, a former vice president of Hills Bank accused of embezzling $559,040 from the bank, killed his wife and four young children. Early Monday morning, after all five members of his immediate family were dead, he committed suicide.
Two weeks later, the family was buried all together. The public response from both sides of the family, and the community at large, was not one of anger. The funeral was defined by strong themes of forgiveness and, of course, loss.
Also present at the funeral, however, was a notorious anti-homosexual hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church. The members picketed the funeral, their signs proclaiming, “God sent the shooter” and “God hates fags,” asserting that Iowa City’s tolerance for homosexuals was the impetus for this tragedy.
I don’t need to spend 650 words trying to persuade you that the actions of this small group are despicable.
Currently, however, the father of a now-deceased Marine — whose funeral the Westboro Baptist Church also picketed — is suing the group for $5 million before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Snyder v. Phelps. Arguments for the case occurred on Wednesday.
Some 48 states and 42 U.S. senators have sided with Albert Snyder, the father and plaintiff. I’m pretty sure that the other two and 48, respectively, just haven’t gotten around to it yet.
As the son of a same-gender couple, I’m sure the Westboro Baptist Church would cheer my death or that of my family. Yet, as revolting and appalling as its actions and statements may be, I very much hope it wins this case.
The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Though the words of Westboro are discomforting to some and infuriating to others, the members have been careful, always, to peacefully assemble — even if their presence inflames others. Their words, surely, are crafted to do exactly that.
In fact, the timing of oral arguments could hardly be worse.
At least eight teenage boys killed themselves in September, driven by homophobic bullying. Anti-homosexual rhetoric, it seems, is the weapon of choice for our generation. We degrade and mock homosexuals in one breath and assert their right to marriage equality in the next.
It’s hard to imagine a worse time for a judicial debate on the topic of anti-homosexual hate speech. But here we are. There is no alternate reality to which we can turn.
Even though this group, this hate-spewing band of miscreants, fuels a homophobic national environment that is proving to be deadly, their right to free speech must be protected.
Obviously, they do not possess any sense of decency that most of us would recognize. But for the same reason that burning a Koran must be legal, their right to free speech must also be protected.
The voices of peaceful dissent, no matter how vile, are just as vital to the democratic process as those in the majority.
And though their message may consist only of hate, we must never forget to condemn the sin and not the sinner. Though we question their actions, the members of this church are human beings, graced with inherent worth and dignity. And somewhere, beneath their masks of hate, there is humanity and love. If not for any of us, then, hopefully, at least for each other.
At the Sueppel family funeral, two families seemed to take a leap of faith and came together to reconcile and forgive. Anger and accusations were the easy way out, but they appeared to opt for a higher, more difficult road.
In the end, their truth and reconciliation proved to be the most effective salve for our community’s wounds.
Darkness cannot extirpate darkness, just as hate has no hope of ever erasing hate; only light, love, and tolerance — even, and particularly of, those with whom we most disagree — have a prayer of doing that.
Zach Wahls is a columnist for the Daily Iowan, and a sophomore at the University of Iowa. He is a contributor to the Student Free Press Association.