Westboro Baptist Church Comes To The University of Northern Iowa

The purpose of this post is to inform those who do not live in the Cedar Falls/Waterloo Iowa area, about a group that is coming to protest on the campus of The University of Northern Iowa. I would be glad to post what I believe an Evangelical Christian response should be to both of these groups, at a later time. However, this post is simply to be informative, and to provide a letter from the University (with links) to help you understand the controversy that will be on our campus this coming week.
Dear Students,

This fall the University of Northern Iowa has engaged in a series of programs and events called, “Standing On Higher Ground,“ which are aimed at strengthening our community and improving the climate for LGBT students, faculty, staff, and potential students and citizens. “On Higher Ground” includes speakers, movies, panel presentations, and performances intended to create an environment for civil discourse, to tell the story of Matthew Shepard and the impact of his death on Laramie, Wyoming, the nation, and our communities; and to strengthen UNI as an LGBT-friendly community that fosters enhanced student learning. The full event schedule is available at: http://www.gbpac.org/learn/standing-on-higher-ground.

As President Allen stated in his message earlier today, various aspects of the “On Higher Ground” project have drawn the attention of Fred Phelps and his small congregation. Phelps and his group plan to picket three times starting with an event next Monday evening at the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center. Planning has centered on creating and preserving a safe environment, while creating an atmosphere for the civil exchange of ideas.

The Phelps group is best described on its own website (which we encourage you to read) http://www.godhatesfags.com/wbcinfo/aboutwbc.html.

Planning has begun for protests in support of the project, and we are encouraged by the tenor and intent of those events. For additional details visit: http://www.facebook.com (see, Westboro Baptist Church Counter Protest).

Looked at appropriately, these events give us the opportunity to live our project title and operate from higher ground. The Phelps congregation tries to invite conflict through shouting, offensive signage, and the incitement of violence. We have the opportunity to respond to hate with peaceful disagreement, solidarity, and openness to their voices of intolerance.

We urge students who gather in support of the project to do the following:

1. Avoid physical confrontation with members of the WBC and other protesters. Such confrontation is exactly the kind of reaction the WBC wants to elicit. This is not consistent with our core values and may lead to criminal prosecution, lawsuits, and other unwanted consequences.

2. Obey instructions from law enforcement and other university officials. Police officers are present to ensure the safety of all individuals and to ensure university operations run smoothly. If asked to leave a particular area, please do so immediately.

3. Remember you represent yourself and the University of Northern Iowa. Be sure your actions are consistent with the core values of respect, responsibility, and honesty as described in the Student Conduct Code.

While being civil in the face of poisonous rhetoric isn’t easy, civility should not be considered a limit on our self expression. P.M. Forni in his book, “Choosing Civility,” helps to clarify our thinking. “Some may say that by being civil to each other we stifle our self-expression. But we can also say that we chose to express one part of ourselves rather than another. Although it may appear that we give up self-expression when we exercise it, in truth restraint can be as much an expression of our Selves as is unfettered behavior….Civility assists us in making choices that increase the quality of our lives.”

These are emotional issues, and we must be sure to look inward and assist our peers, colleagues and participants in finding their personal higher ground. We encourage students who may be impacted by these events to use the resources of the UNI Counseling Center. Counseling services are free and confidential. More information about these services can be found at: http://www.uni.edu/counseling.

Good work is never easy and we should not be surprised by resistance. This event provides us the opportunity to create a model for how great universities handle this kind of challenge. We look forward to working with students and all our community members to make sure we operate on higher ground. For additional information about, “Standing on Higher Ground,” visit: http://www.gbpac.org/learn/standing-on-higher-ground.

Steve Carignan
Assistant Vice President and Executive
Director, Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center

Jon Buse
Dean of Students

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