The Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, an organization labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is planning to protest Bridge Builders on Oct. 31.
Founded in 1955, the Westboro Baptist Church has been described as “the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” by the Law Center, and held more than 58,000 events since 1991, according to its website. Among the events were protests at Orlando shooting victims’ funerals, soldiers’ funerals and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The protest has been scheduled for Oct. 31 at 10:30 a.m., according to the organization’s website.
The university has rejected the protest, and in a statement provided by the Office of Communications, encourages students not to engage. The full statement is below:
We are aware that Westboro is planning a protest on public property near Belmont’s campus. As a Christian institution, it is our goal to build a diverse and inclusive community where all members feel accepted, safe and loved. We firmly reject the hate they exhibit and encourage our community to not engage with this group during their Nashville visit. Dr. Jeffery Burgin Associate Provost & Dean of Students
The university’s senior leadership team negotiated that the Westboro protesters stay off campus, said Bridge Builder publicist Hope Gipson.
“I’m really proud of Belmont for negotiating that because I think it sends the message that Belmont does not want this message around their students and they do want to protect their students,” Gipson said.
However, the protesters will still be visible from university grounds and will be accessible to students.
“Students will not have to interact with them unless they seek them out, so we want to encourage people to not seek them out or give them that attention,” Gipson said.
Rather than give Westboro undue attention, Gipson said Bridge Builders wants to use the group’s likely proximity to its advantage and is organizing a counter protest, which will include a prayer from University Ministries.
As of Thursday morning, emails and phonecalls to Westboro Baptist Church were unreturned.
Other students have already begun to plan counter-protests against the group.
One of these students is Colleen Ellis, a Belmont freshman. After hearing about the protest from a friend, she took to her class’ Facebook page to invite her fellow classmates to sit in at the protest.
“A win would be a large turn out of a crowd of Belmont students that respectfully rise above the ignorance and hate,” said Ellis. “I hope everyone who shows up understands the minute an insult is used an argument becomes invalid, and remembers not to stoop to their level.”
More information will be added to this story as it becomes available.
Reporting by Melissa Kriz, Sara Scannell, Zach Gilchriest, Jessica King, Ally Pace and Riley Wallace