On the crisp fall morning of Monday, Nov. 12, the quiet college town of Claremont, California laid silent. Well, almost. Although Claremont High School students and staff had this particular Monday off due to Veteran’s Day, it was far from silent on the street running adjacent to the campus. Adults, teenagers, and children hailing from the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church marched along the street on both sides, belting Christian rock music and proudly holding signs reading “God sent the shooter,” “Most people go to hell,” and “God hates proud sinners.”
The church is widely known for their radical views on a plethora of topics. Infamously known for their use of speech against the LGBTQ community, U.S. soldiers, Jews, Muslims, and more, the WBC is recognized as a hate group by both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have also been involved in several controversies in the past, from picketing at funerals to praising the Boston Marathon bombings.
In this particular instance, they came to Claremont for the main sake of protesting a Pomona College class titled, “Queering Childhood.” As a result, the church issued a news release announcing their picketing at CHS at 6:20 a.m. and Pomona College at 7:15 a.m. on November 12.
“The Lord is coming! This is a generation that increases daily in every abomination and gross heresy that human hearts and minds can conceive,” the church said. “And the youth presently occupying Claremont High School and Pomona College are utterly saturated in, love, promote and practice them all as though there is no God or judgment day to come.”
Protesters of all ages could be seen gathering in support of the church on the morning of November 1, including 13-year-old Bethany Hofenberger.
“You’ve had these shootings, and you’ve had these fires, and you are all asking what it’s for,” Hofenberger said. “And it’s because you’ve disobeyed the word of god and you haven’t repented of your sins.”
Although the Westboro Baptist Church came to CHS in clear offense of a Pomona College-offered class, there seemed to be multiple underlying messages. This was fully articulated by protester Shirley Phelps-Roper, a well-known activist and spokesperson for WBC. She came to the picket with signs reading “God sent the shooter,” referring to the recent Thousand Oaks bar shooting, and “God’s Fury,” depicting a house on fire, referring to recent fires and home losses near Malibu, California. Phelps-Roper’s views generally express the idea that all of these events — shootings, natural disasters, and more— are God’s way of punishing humanity for the sins of the LGBTQ community.
“Our goal is to put these words in front of your face and hope that someone has a heart to know their god. And we don’t know if you do or you don’t, we don’t care, it’s not our job. We don’t control hearts, God does that,” Phelps-Roper said. “The other thing we accomplish, simultaneously, is to bind you with these words. You have been warned that God Almighty is not going to accept this conduct that this nation is engaged in. He’s dragged you into a war, you cannot get out of it. And more: the fires, the drought, the flooding, the shooters, the tsunamis. I’ve lived long enough to know that this is not normal. This is not the way it was. This nation has turned from God to idols.”
All in all, the announcement of the WBC protest shocked CHS students and left many feeling uncomfortable, targeted, and confused. This, on top of the early-morning scheduling, made WBC church members outnumber the amount of CHS students that showed. Things were a bit different when the group made their stop at Pomona College, however.
Pomona College students and other Claremont residents gathered on the Pomona campus to counter the WBC members. Many were sporting rainbow attire and holding signs decorated in a rainbow font, one reading “Did any of y’all read the bible?” Fortunately, both groups remained peaceful. By 8 a.m., the WBC had left Claremont and was well on their way to their next Southern California picket location. In the days following, tension and confusion lingered in conversations among Claremont residents regarding the event.