Students protest Westboro Baptist Church presence on campus

Group came to protest Sac State over resources for LGBTQ students


Vincent Moleski - The State Hornet

Liam Worrell-Olson, right, makes a heart with his hands while standing in front of picketers from the Westboro Baptist Church, who protested at the J Street entrance to Sac State on Tuesday, May 8. The Westboro Baptist Church is a Kansas-based Christian fundamentalist group known for its inflammatory anti-LGBT speech.

More than a hundred counter-protesters gathered in the Library Quad to protest the presence of members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who picketed at the J street entrance of Sacramento State for 30 minutes on Tuesday over the University’s resources for LGBTQ students.

At the forefront of the protest was Shirley Phelps-Roper — the daughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps — who held signs and sang.

Rachel Hockenbarger, who joined Phelps-Roper at the protest, said that Sac State was one of several stops in Sacramento they intended to make, focusing on places she said had “proud sinners,” including Mira Loma High School and Rocklin Academy Gateway, an elementary school.

When asked why she chose to visit Sac State, Hockenbarger said it was “Because you are the luckiest humans on the planet. Because this is where God sent us.”

In a campus-wide email Monday morning, Sac State President Robert Nelsen said that the messages spread by the Westboro Baptist Church are “personally abhorrent.”

“The vile, hate-filled, bigoted messages that we have seen espoused by members of this group are to me personally abhorrent. Those messages do not reflect the values of Sacramento State,” Nelsen wrote. “Nonetheless, Sacramento State is a public university, and our campus is public space. Our values include the right to free speech.”

Students, faculty members, and administrators arrived in the Library Quad at roughly 1:30 p.m. to counter-protest. Many said that their reason for showing up was to support the LGBTQ community.

Sac State student Liam Worrell-Olson was among those in the counter-protest. Worrell-Olson held signs that read “Not today, Fred,” referring to the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps.

“I disagree with their message,” Worrell-Olson said. “They’re intolerant. We have to come out here.”

Worrell-Olson, who photobombed a few photos of the Westboro Baptists by stepping into frame and making a heart with his hands, said that although they are free to express their message, “a tolerant society cannot be tolerant of intolerance.”

Sac State student Miles Meckle said that his goal was to block the Westboro Baptist Church’s message.

“We’re about tolerance here at Sacramento State, we’re about diversity, we’re about inclusion and we’re not about hindering these people against tolerance,” Meckle said. “Today we’re here to stand and block their message, from getting their message out and show them that tolerance is the key to getting along.”

Nelsen was at the counter-protest in the Library Quad, where he got a heart and rainbow flag painted on his face and posed with students for photos.

“The importance of today is that we show strength and we show solidarity,” Nelsen said. “We are a Hornet family, and we support each other, that we have love on this campus, and we have acceptance, and we are a caring campus.”

Nelsen said that there were “30,816 reasons” as to why he felt the need to be present at the counter-protest.

“There’s 30,816 students here,” Nelsen said. “I want to support each and every one of those students.”

When asked about the apparent conflict between condemning the Westboro Baptist Church and awarding the president of Ghana — where homosexuality is illegal and LGBTQ people often face violent attacks — less than two weeks ago, Nelsen said he had a “frank conversation” with him.

“I expressed my concerns about what was happening in that country and what we stand for as Sac State and a Hornet family,” Nelsen said. “We had a very difficult discussion but it was a good discussion, I think he understands better what Sac State is and what we stand for.”

Additional reporting by Vincent Moleski, Thomas Frey, Alex Daniels, Robby Sanchez and Will Coburn