Drown out Westboro’s hate

March 30, 2011

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IT’S SAD, but perhaps inevitable, that an outfit as loathsome as the Westboro Baptist Church would insult someone as admirable Peter Gomes, the Harvard pastor and professor who died last month. The tiny Kansas-based group, which has drawn fame for waging anti-gay protests at military funerals, has demonstrated outside Gomes’s speeches in the past. Now, the group has announced that it will come to Gomes’s memorial service in Cambridge on April 6.

Gomes, who was openly gay, saw spirituality as a force of good and used his pulpit to preach tolerance. The Westboro group — all members of a single family — are, in many ways, his antithesis. They seek publicity by holding up hurtful signs in sensitive situations, banking on the fact that something shocking and vicious is difficult to ignore. And, as the US Supreme Court correctly ruled last month, they have a First Amendment right to spew their hate in public places.

But opponents have found a fitting and effective way to fight the church’s message: with a louder, larger exercise of free speech. A group of bikers that calls itself the Patriot Guard Riders has followed the Westboro gang to military funerals, hoisting large American flags, and blocking mourners from the sight of hateful signs. At previous Westboro appearances at Harvard, students have gathered for similar counterprotests.

That’s precisely what should happen in Cambridge next week. Some of the many people whose lives Gomes touched — students and faculty, other Bostonians, perhaps the university choir — could easily drown out the Westboro group with a message of acceptance, gratitude, and good humor. There could be no better demonstration of Gomes’s ideals.