Sunday, April 20, 2014
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ACLU defends gays, and gay-haters

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is in the news for threatening to sue the Chambersburg Area School District for denying a request to form a Gay-Straight Alliance club. In a letter addressed to the school board, the ACLU said, “Discrimination and harassment can have a devastating impact on gay youth,” later adding, “A disproportionate amount of physical violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of all ages is perpetrated by teenagers.”

ACLU defends gays, and gay-haters

Westover Baptist Church protest.
Westover Baptist Church protest. Bradley C. Bower/AP

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is in the news for threatening to sue the Chambersburg Area School District for denying a request to form a Gay-Straight Alliance club. In a letter addressed to the school board, the ACLU said, “Discrimination and harassment can have a devastating impact on gay youth,” later adding, “A disproportionate amount of physical violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of all ages is perpetrated by teenagers.”

All very true.

That’s why it’s particularly shocking and disturbing to learn that the same group that is proudly fighting nationwide to protect the LGBT community has enabled arguably the most vile and disgusting anti-gay group in America to continue to be able to picket military funerals with offensive signs condemning homosexuality. Yes, believe it or not, the ACLU has legally represented the free speech rights of Rev. Fred Phelps and his fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church – an organization that enlists some of the young teenagers that the ACLU doesn’t want to harass LGBT youth – to carry around signs that, among others things, say “God hates fags.”

Over the past year, the ACLU has been sending young canvassers all over the streets of Center City Philadelphia, with a large congregation of solicitors around the Rittenhouse Square area. These mostly 20-somethings have been seeking to bolster the ACLU’s monthly membership recruitments. I’ve had at least a dozen of these canvassers approach me, most often opening their conversation with a variation of “Hi. Do you support gay rights?” After I’ve told them “yes,” I’ve followed up by asking them if they knew about Fred Phelps or the Westboro Baptist Church. Only one of their representatives knew. Every other one was literally clueless as to what I was talking about. Many were shocked once I told them. Some were in disbelief and said they’d get back to me. None of them did.

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But ACLU of PA Legal Director Witold J. Walczak, who was one of the signers on the letter to the Chambersburg School District, did get back to me when I asked how the organization could send out these aggressive fundraisers on our streets under the name of defending gay rights while providing representation to Phelps and his church.

Walczak started out by telling me, “The ACLU defends everyone’s rights and strongly believes that no one is free unless everyone is free. If government has the power to squelch Phelps it has the power to censor other unpopular groups, with the LGBT community being an unfortunate and frequent target.” Walczak later added, “ Just as the ACLU’s defense of abortion protesters doesn’t undermine our commitment to a woman’s reproductive freedom and representing the KKK doesn’t compromise our dedication to racial justice, defending Phelps’ free-speech rights is consistent with our LGBT-rights work.”

I don’t know. I just don’t see it. Maybe I’m just not sophisticated or hip enough to see how you can represent the interests of opposing parties at the same time. To me, a former candidate for political office, that’s like taking money from a donor and then turning around and giving it to their worst enemy. In my world, you just don’t do that.

I’m not the only one who feels that way.

“I have often been stopped on the street by the ACLU fundraisers in Center City, asking 'Do you support gay rights?' as a conversation starter,” said Seth Kaufer, a Gastroenterology and Hepatology Fellow at Hahnemann University Hospital. Kauffer, who is openly gay, didn’t appreciate the in-your-face attitude or personal questioning posed by the canvassers. “I find it very insulting on many levels. First of all, gays are not monolithic in our support of any issue or special interest group. We are individuals that come from all different points of views and perspectives.”

But not all openly gay Pennsylvanians feel the way Kaufer does. Adrian Shanker, president of Equality Pennsylvania, a gay rights organization that is siding with the ACLU on the Chambersburg matter, applauded the ACLU’s efforts.

“The ACLU has been an important ally for the LGBT community in Pennsylvania, especially when it comes to guaranteeing civil rights for LGBT students in our public schools when those rights have been under attack by school boards or administrators.” Yet, Shanker did acknowledge, “Nobody is going to agree with the ACLU 100% of the time, but I think we should all appreciate their principled stand in favor of free speech and free expression for everyone.”

Indeed, I do appreciate the ACLU’s support of free speech, but not at the same time that its main pitch on the streets of Philadelphia is protecting gay rights. Do one or the other. You can’t have two masters. There’s no ideological dilemma. This is very clear cut. For that reason, I’m keeping my wallet in my pocket, and I encourage others to do the same.

“The ACLU supporting Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is a slap in the face to not only gays, but to all Americans,” Kaufer said. “The group not only carries signs that say 'God hates fags,' but even more disturbing, the ACLU has defended their right to picket and disrupt military funerals for soldiers that died defending our freedom overseas. I can't think of a more despicable alliance than between the ACLU and the Westboro Baptist Church. They deserve each other.”

John Featherman
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John Featherman is a contributor at Philly.com and writes about politics and consumer-related issues. Reach John at john@featherman.com.

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