On Monday, February 25th, picketers from the Westboro Baptist Church are planning on protesting in front of Sequoyah’s high school campus as students arrive at school. The Topeka, Kansas based anti-gay group said in a press release released on Monday, February 18th that they were targeting Sequoyah senior and Pasadena 2019 Rose Queen Louise Siskel.
The Westboro Baptist Church, although not affiliated with any Baptist denomination, calls itself an “Old School Baptist Church” that preaches “against all form of sin” through the form of peaceful protests “opposing the homosexual lifestyle.” Since June of 1991, they claim to have picketed 63,546 times in all 50 U.S. states and internationally. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the church as a hate group.
In the press release, the Westboro Baptist Church claims that “the youth presently occupying Sequoyah High School are utterly saturated in, love, promote and practice … every abomination and gross heresy that human hearts and minds can conceive … all as though there is no God or judgment day to come.” The church also blames “the adults around” the students of Sequoyah for having ”woefully failed” them.
On December 31, 2018, a Los Angeles Times op-ed written by Siskel highlighted that she was the first openly bisexual, Jewish, glasses-wearing Rose Queen. The Westboro Baptist Church is also considered an anti-Semitic group by the Anti-Defamation League.
While Siskel said that she “was worried a little bit when I published the op-ed that I might receive some of that feedback,” she said that most of the response she has received has been of “support and encouragement.” Siskel did point to an article in The American Conservative that she felt “was more negative” in response to her op-ed. Siskel added that she wrote the op-ed “not for the people in The American Conservative, but for the people that will be impacted and encouraged” by her message.
Siskel said that, while she does recognize the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group, she understands their First Amendment rights to protest, even if it is “pretty awful or hateful, as long as it doesn’t cross the lines of hate speech.” She said she has been talking to the Sequoyah administration and the student body to “harness” the “momentum around this right now … to make some real change.” In emails sent by Head of School Josh Brody and High School Director Marc Alongi to families and in Morning Meeting on February 22nd, Siskel asked those interested to “express solidarity with the LGBTQ community” by contributing to The Trevor Project or other LGBTQ-support organizations.
Junior Sarah Hughes said that “it’s so horrible that people are targeting not only [Siskel] but a community that is so supportive of her, and other members of the LGBTQ+ community.” Sophomore Remali de Silva said that she feels “a lot of sadness for the people that are being targeted, and also a lot of sadness for the [Westboro Baptist Church], even though they are hurting other people and not being accepting.” de Silva further explained that “if people want to hate people so much, then there must be some part of them that doesn’t have enough love.”
The Sequoyah administration and larger community first found out about the protest through Hughes’ mom Anne Hughes about two weeks ago. Sarah Hughes explained that a “close family friend” and teacher “follows the Westboro Baptist Church” website to help “teach and work with students” from the schools they protest at. That friend recently went to their website to see their upcoming pickets and saw “Sequoyah High School” on the list. Sarah Hughes said that the friend told her mom, who then emailed Alongi and Brody.
Freshman Tobias Chapman expressed some of his worries about having people protest at Sequoyah: “it feels a little bit unsafe … I would not want [them] near me,” he said. While the group is typically non-violent, All Saints Church Rector and Sequoyah parent Mike Kinman said, “part of their strategy is to try to get other people to be violent towards them, so then they can sue them and get money for their organization.” (According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group does not accept any outside donations. According to The Most Hated Family in America, a 2007 documentary about the group, the Westboro Baptist Church spends over $200,000 annually on travel expenses.)
Sal Lagunas, Director of Operations, added, “We are in cahoots with our police department and have their commitment to be present during the picketing.” Operations, according to Brody, will station Sequoyah’s “entire operations team” along the perimeter of both campuses. Lagunas said that an “easy, obvious way” of reducing safety risks include “staying out of WBC’s way, … per the recommendations of local authorities.”
In an email exchange with a resident, as reported by the Pasadena Weekly, Pasadena Police Chief John Perez said the Westboro Baptist church has been “peaceful and cooperative” in the past. Perez expects “a very loud group of 15 people or so — likely not much more.” Sequoyah administrators have repeatedly said there will not be more than six protesters. Perez said the police department will “plan for contingencies and keep the view of the police to a minimum to avoid any issues. Our strategy is to get groups in and out and have PPD resources organized to quickly respond as needed.”
Last week, Sequoyah administrators had a meeting with Sergeant Anthony Burgess and Lieutenant Churt from the Pasadena Police Department and confirmed that the “police department will have officers parked in our school parking lot and also on Orange Grove Blvd. in direct view of the picketers on Monday,” as Brody wrote in a February 20th email to families. Alongi said the police will be there to make sure that “everybody is abiding by the law” and that they are “interested in allowing people to exercise their First Amendment rights, but not to violate other” people’s rights.
While the drop-off procedure will not be different on Monday, Alongi explained that staff will be ensuring only people coming for Sequoyah, the Fair Oaks Preschool, or the Neighborhood Church enter the parking lot. Staff will also be stationed at Walnut and Orange Grove to escort students who arrive by Metro or off campus to school.
As Head of School Josh Brody wrote in an email to families on February 12th, “Sequoyah has a long history of celebrating human dignity and we remain committed to continuing the important work of creating a diverse and inclusive educational environment for our students and families.” Brody added that “Sequoyah does not seem outside the boundaries of who the group chooses to target” due to the school’s and the church’s values.
Brody said in an interview that he feels “sad that these people dedicate their lives to spreading hate against other people, … sad that they’re targeting one of our students, sad that they’re targeting our school.” He said he finds their message “completely and utterly hateful.”
The Sequoyah administration originally asked for families to not engage with the group during the protest at all. Brody said that the Anti-Defamation League has “a manual for schools about how to deal with the Westboro Baptist Church” and they “recommend” that no “students or staff in any way engage with the Westboro Baptists.” After the school went “back and forth between the inclination to drown out WBC’s messages of hate with our own messages of love and the alternative strategy to not dignify or amplify these messages of hate with any direct response at all,” the school changed their position slightly. While still not encouraging students and their families to participate in any type of direct response or counter-protest, the school said that if families want to participate in an organized response to the Westboro Baptists, they are encouraging families to participate in the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church’s non-violent response. The Neighborhood Church, which owns the school campus, held a peacekeeper training and poster-making workshop on Sunday, February 24th, which the school encouraged families to go to if they were interested in showing support during the group’s protest.
Brody said that he felt “conflicted” about how to respond “because so much of what our school is about is understanding how to be an upstander and to stand up for what you believe in.” He added, “I had to really grapple with it because I felt strange asking people not to stand up to this hate.” But after speaking with more people about the protest, he felt that “it was better strategically for students and teachers not to.” Junior Reyna Revel felt it was contradictory and was “annoyed” that the school “tells us to be upstanders” but, in this situation, wants students to “bystand.”
Spanish teacher and a faculty sponsor of the Equity Alliance Committee Marisol Perez said that she feels “really fortunate to be part of the Sequoyah community and have a lot of faith and confidence in how we’re approaching” the protest. She added that, for students, it “is an opportunity to look around and see a lot of modeling for the way to respond to hostility, anger, and hate in a way that is I think sort of healthy.”
Reverend Lissa Anne Gundlach, Senior Minister at the Neighborhood Church, wrote in a press release dated February 20th that the Neighborhood Church does “not want to feed this group’s hunger for publicity or provide a megaphone for their words of hate.” She added, “Maintaining a safe, healthy environment for the students is our top priority.” Other Pasadena churches, including All Saints Church and Throop Unitarian Universalist Church, have shown their support and will be sending some of their members to the protest as well.
de Silva showed support for the Neighborhood Church’s response, saying “I think they’re handling it really well and the counter-protest is effective in generating peace and not having it turn into violence or straight anger.”
Junior Jay Martin finds it “hilarious” that the Westboro Baptist Church will be picketing at Sequoyah. They said they feel “so angry that it’s laughable.” Before knowing how the school wanted students to respond, Martin wanted to “make my own signs … saying funny stuff being gay … and have a debate with them … to show them how wrong they are.” Martin expressed some slight frustration with not being able to “stand up for myself” due to the school asking students not to participate in any counter protest. “They are threatening my value, my life,” Martin said.
In the Equity Alliance Committee’s latest meeting, Amber Gravely (K–12 Athletic Director and a faculty sponsor of the committee) said that the committee had “students who self-identify with the LGBTQ community share their experiences with the group” in hopes that it would help them “understand how to be good allies.”
An ad hoc committee led by de Silva was formed in last week’s Steering Committee meeting to plan how students will respond. de Silva explained that a council is planned for Monday during Z-Block, where advisories will have a discussion and some questions they may answer. She added that the committee is also working on an art project with art teacher Peter Wallis.” That art project will involve flats set up in the courtyard where people can “paint whatever they feel or want.” She said the flats will be open on Monday morning and after the council in Advisory. Since photos will be taken as people add to the flats, de Silva explained that the community will be able to “compare how people reacted initially and then after the talk.”
During Morning Meetings in recent weeks, discussions were led by Brody and Alongi about the protest. On February 13th, Brody and Alongi introduced the event to students. On the 21st, a discussion was facilitated by Brody, Alongi, Kinman, Rev. Gundlach, and Luis Sierra Campos, the Neighborhood Church’s Social Justice and Inclusion Coordinator. During this discussion, school administrators shared some details about logistics and Campos talked about how to confront hate and how the church was planning on responding. Campos said that he believes the Westboro Baptist Church wants to “make us fight among ourselves, they want to make us fight with them.” He added that the church is telling its members not to come to the protest because “if we have a lot of people on Monday it’s only going to create the commotion they want.” Kinman, who has encountered the Westboro Baptist Church three times in the past, also shared the feelings he experienced when he encountered them previously.
On Friday, February 22nd, Stacy Horth-Neubert, a Sequoyah parent and a trustee of the Southern California ACLU chapter, talked to students during Morning Meeting about hate speech and the rights and limits to the rights afforded to U.S. citizens by the First Amendment. (Students had an alternate morning schedule to accommodate the unusual Friday Morning Meeting.)
Following Monday’s protest, Brody said Kristin Flickinger, Director of Programs of the Los Angeles LGBT Center will present in Morning Meeting “about The Resistance Squad, a community based group that mobilizes volunteers to engage in meaningful and experienced-based actions that impact policy decisions impacting the LGBT community.” Nancy Nazarian-Medina, a Student Task Force Program Advisor for the Human Rights Watch, will also be speaking to students about how students can get involved in the task force.
The school is recommending students go to Anais Plasketes, Sequoyah’s Social Emotional Support Specialist, or any faculty member should they need support. Brody said that Plasketes will be “available for one-on-one support for students who need it leading up to and after the WBC protest.”
Junior James Femino said he thinks “it’s best if they’re ignored.” He explained, “They want to be seen, that’s the whole point of a protest, and if you don’t let them be seen, then the protest is ineffective.”
Humanities teacher Julian Petri had similar feelings to Femino, saying: “We’re exaggerating the impact of the WBC when we should be focused on other things. … It’s interesting that we cast it as a major confrontation when they’re a couple of strange, odd people.” When Petri first heard about the protest he said he felt “excited and curious.” He thinks the group “seems like a fascinating ethnographic object of study” but not threatening. Without the Internet, Petri argues that the group “wouldn’t be known” and are a “modern mass-media phenomenon, basically an extended family of 70 people.”
Four Westboro Baptist Church members recently picketed in Thousand Oaks where they were outnumbered by counter-protesters. Following the group’s picket at Sequoyah, they will be protesting at Loyola Marymount University from 9:30 to 10 in the morning.
The Westboro Baptist Church did not respond to The Barefoot Times’ requests for comments.