An interfaith group of churches in Rhode Island asked the media to focus on love, not hate on the first day same-gender couples could file for marriage licenses, August 1. As a result, most local news coverage focused attention on the couples who were marrying and not picketers from Westboro Baptist Church.
"We had a week of discussion among our colleagues about whether -- or not -- to be at the various city [and] town halls in solidarity with those seeking marriage licenses [Thursday] morning and decided, instead, not to dignify Westboro's hate by our showing up," said the Rev. Betsy Garland, a UCC minister and president of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.
A group of United Church of Christ leaders took part in the effort, joining interfaith partners from the RISCC asking folks to ignore hate-group protests, and in a letter to local media, called on news outlets to keep the attention on the couples who were marrying and not picketers from Westboro Baptist Church.
Westboro Baptist Church is recognized as an anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT group. It is located in Kansas, to which the RISCC said they had no business coming to Rhode Island to protest the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Aug. 1 was the first day same-sex couples could legally marry in Rhode Island after a law was passed in late April.
"Perhaps in response to our request, there was very little coverage of the Westboro appearance," Garland said, adding that they had scattered by late morning. One news organization reported that four Westboro members picketed at various locations in the state, but they were outnumbered by hundreds of marriage-equality supporters each time.
Among the group to sign the letter were Garland, the Rev. Gene Dyszlewski of First Unitarian Church in Providence, the Rev. Beverley Edwards, interim conference minister of the Rhode Island Conference of the UCC, the Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson, chaplain of Brown University, the Revs. Rebecca L. Spencer and Claudia Demick of Central Congregational in Providence, the Rev. Paul Bizer of Peace Dale Congregational, and Helen Schall of Barrington Congregational.
Dyszlewski was the second minister in the state to perform a same-sex marraige, and was pleased that Westboro's protests were buried on page 9 of a local newspaper, while most of the front page had photographs of LGBT couples tying the knot.
"It was about as joyous a front page as any newspaper can get," he said. "I think the people of Rhode Island are more socially liberal than the legislature. It seemed that everyone is pleased that we are the 13th state to allow marriage equality. Yesterday, Betsy and I attended the marriage of the representative who sponsored the marriage equality bill. The officiant was the speaker of the house and the Governor was the best man. I was privileged to be a witness."
The full letter to Rhode Island news outlets reads:
As leaders of multiple faith traditions, we stand together to deplore the planned [Aug. 1] visit to Rhode Island of the Westboro Baptist Church, outsiders coming to protest the issuing of Marriage Licenses to same-gender couples.
Westboro does not represent the faith communities, the citizens, or the residents of Rhode Island and has no role in public policy here. We have followed a deliberate and responsible process of public debate, resulting in legislation that reflects the majority opinion of our legislators and our citizens.
It is the strength of Rhode Island's Marriage Equality legislation that each faith community continues to relate to the issue of same-gender marriage according to each community's own theological view and commitment. While we are not all agreed on Marriage Equality, we are agreed that picketing with hateful language and intimidating actions serves no one and disrupts public life.
We therefore join together as faith leaders of our State to appeal to the media to ignore the Westboro protests as the tangential and irrelevant phenomena that they are.