Westboro Baptist Church member debates with students, greeted by protesters

By Tony Wittkowski | Staff Reporter | Central Michigan Life

Shirley Phelps-Roper faced a crowd of journalism students gathered in the Engineering and Technology Building and told them of a terrible fate she feels they could face.

“We deserve death, we deserve hell,” Phelps-Roper said. “If you serve God, you will not be tricked.”

Phelps-Roper, along with two of her daughters, spoke to three journalism classes Monday about her experience with the First Amendment. The three come from the Westboro Baptist Church, a religious group out of Topeka, Kan. nationally known for protesting soldiers’ funerals following 9/11.

But the discussion stayed away from the topic when those in attendance began asking questions about anything from the family’s funeral protests to the Bible and the molestation of children by priests.

At one point, Phelps-Roper criticized President Barack Obama, calling him “the Antichrist” and “not a real Christian.”

“There was a fair amount of opposition to her coming,” said Timothy Boudreau, associate journalism professor. “But not as much as I expected.”

Boudreau contacted Phelps-Roper through an e-mail address listed on the WBC website, inviting her to speak in his three journalism classes.

“We usually try to bring a controversial person in once every semester,” Boudreau said. “Just to give students an experience in case they have to interview someone they don’t agree with.”

Eliana Lifson, 10, of Mount Pleasant rests her head on her mother Rachel Ann Foster's shoulder as the two stand amidst about 60 protesters who gathered at CMU against Shirley Phelps-Roper (Photo courtesy of Jake May).

Eliana Lifson, 10, of Mount Pleasant rests her head on her mother Rachel Ann Foster’s shoulder as the two stand amidst about 60 protesters who gathered at CMU against Shirley Phelps-Roper (Photo courtesy of Jake May).

For Phelps-Roper, it has been five years since she last spoke at a university.

“It’s wonderful here, these kids are great,” Phelps-Roper said. “They’ve been taught all their life to believe in one thing, so it’s hard to tell them you’re wrong.”

Not everyone was against the idea of Phelps-Roper speaking at CMU.

John Smith, a Mount Pleasant resident, CMU retiree and veteran, asked Phelps-Roper several questions which drew support from the audience.

“I applaud Tim for doing it,” Smith said. “It’s something that needed to be done.”

Smith, who served in Korea for three and a half months before being injured at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, argued over the real interpretation of the Bible.

“Everyone has something good about them,” Smith said. “But I couldn’t find it in them.”

The Protest

Around campus, protesters gathered to voice their displeasure over the WBC’s views.

A crowd of about 60 people met by the Charles V. Park Library, accompanied by an arrangement of signs.

Two of the protestors included 10-year-old Eliana Lifson and her mother, Rachel Ann Foster.

Foster let Eliana take the day off from school to participate in the protest. Together, they held a sign that read “God is a lesbian.”

“They can’t tell us what to do,” Eliana said. “Gays and lesbians are free to do what they want.”

The two students who helped organize the protest were Bay City junior Kyle Elsea and Crystal Lake sophomore Annie Somerville.

The protest remained peaceful when Phelps-Roper passed by.

“I understand she has a right to speak here,” said Elsea, an Iraq veteran. “So we figured we would do the same … We don’t appreciate her being here.”

During the protest, there were also donations collected for the Human Rights Campaign and the Wounded Warriors Project.

“The Dogma Free Society is taking donations and donating them in Westboro’s name to organizations they don’t like,” Somerville said.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 1, 2010)

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