A fringe, Kansas-based church that routinely stages demonstrations across the country is planning to protest outside a number of synagogues, Jewish institutions and events in Center City this weekend.
The Westboro Baptist Church — led by Fred Phelps — has been labeled a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League for its statements regarding gays, Jews and blacks.
Westboro's members — most of whom are related to Phelps, according to the ADL — typically decry homosexuality and any other deviations from their interpretation of the Bible.
While it has targeted Jewish institutions in the past, the church appears to have heightened its attention in recent months. According to its news release, it's coming to Philadelphia because the city is the site of the national conference organized by the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.
"It just seems like their primary goal is to gain publicity for themselves," said Nancy Baron-Baer, ADL's associate regional director. "It seems like they have a loud bark, but they have not done anything violent."
Baron-Baer said that as soon as the ADL learned of the group's demonstration schedule — it was posted on Westboro's Web site — the agency notified all the Jewish institutions on the list. That included virtually every synagogue in Center City, along with the National Museum of Jewish American History and the Jewish Community Services Building, both in the city.
The Sheraton Hotel, the site of the genealogy conference, was also given a heads-up.
'You Killed Christ'
Captain William Fisher, a police department spokesman, said that nearly two weeks ago, the church informed police of its plans. Fisher noted that officers will be stationed at each of the designated buildings.
"They themselves are not a violent group of people, although some of the things they protest for can infuriate other citizens. They use the First Amendment greatly to their advantage," said the officer, who added that Westboro members have shown up in town numerous times in the past decade to protest various events.
"They don't just protest against Jewish people. They protest against Catholics, gays and government, and everything in between," said Fisher, adding that the Jewish community appeared well-informed and prepared for the demonstrations.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, an attorney for the group, who was contacted by phone, said that church members are targeting Jewish institutions in as many cities as they can get to, and that their message to Jews is clear: "You killed Christ, and you are not going to get away with that and you know it."
'Trying to Bait Us'
For the past month or so, several synagogues in the area have received faxes from Westboro. Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen has gotten more than 20.
Rabbi Gregory Marx said that the shul had alerted the ADL, but not responded in any way. "I think they are trying to bait us," he said, "and we are not going to take the bait. This is a fringe group that is hateful, radical and threatens to undermine the civility of religious tolerance."
Baron-Baer stressed that Jewish groups should not organize any counterprotests and that individuals attending services or other events should not speak to the protesters.
"My advice would be not to react, don't directly engage them or confront them. Just go about your business," said Baron-Baer, who added that any instance of hate speech can be made into a teachable moment about spreading a message of respect.