Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas-based group that pickets the funerals of fallen service members with “God Hates Fags” signs, is notorious nationwide for preaching a gospel of hate. But another small church is using similar tactics to attack Muslims, causing an uproar in the university town of Gainesville, Fla.
The ironically named Dove World Outreach Center erected a large roadside sign last July emblazoned with the words, “Islam is of the Devil.” That sign — later replaced by three smaller signs with the same slogan — triggered protests, dozens of phone calls to the church, numerous letters to the editor and national news coverage. The church stated on its website that it posted the sign “to expose Islam for what it is. It is a violent and oppressive religion that is trying to mascarade [sic] itself as a religion of peace, seeking to deceive our society.” In August, children whose parents are church members showed up at school wearing T-shirts that also proclaimed, in bright red letters, “Islam is of the Devil.” After the Alachua County School District banned the T-shirts, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the district, alleging that students’ free speech rights had been violated.
Despite the virulently anti-Islam rhetoric, a representative from the church was invited to give the invocation at the Sept. 8 meeting of the Alachua County commissioners, according to the Gainesville Sun. Church member Wayne Sapp, one of the parents who became a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the school district, stated in part: “As we remember 9/11, we encourage all religions, all people — especially the Muslims — to speak out against oppression and violent behavior…”
The Muslim-bashing was far more overt on Sept. 11, when the church held a march against Islam in the parking lot of a Gainesville mall. About 30 people participated, wearing “Islam is of the Devil” T-shirts and carrying signs such as “Islam Kills,” according to the Gainesville Sun. (For $20, people can buy the T-shirts on the church’s website.)
It didn’t end there: In October, the church constructed what it called a “fake lynching” scene, complete with life-sized mannequins, that featured a dark, bearded Muslim executioner and a Christian — wearing a white shirt adorned with a cross — who hung from a wooden plank. “[I]t is a very shocking, disturbing sight when you drive near the church property,” wrote church member Amy Ingram on the church’s blog. But she insisted that was as it should be. “Islam is growing in the whole world. Thousands of Americans are converting every year and we as Christians just want to pretend everything is okay.”
The church has also angered the gay community by staging an “anti-gay pride parade” at the Gainesville Pride Parade and Festival last fall, according to the Independent Florida Alligator. Participants held signs with messages such as “Homos lead to Hell” — a sentiment repeated on a sign near the church last month. Two gay rights groups took part in a Jan. 10 protest against the church, according to the Gainesville Sun. Shortly after that protest, the church tried to exploit the recent tragedy in Haiti, posting a sign reading, “Haiti Turn to God!” A post on the church’s blog suggested that the Jan. 12 earthquake might have occurred because the country made a pact with the devil.
Bigotry isn’t the church’s only problem. Former church members have criticized Dove World Outreach Center for its financial practices, including running a for-profit furniture business from the tax-exempt church property, the Gainesville Sun reported. The church was founded 24 years ago in Gainesville, according to its website. After its founder, Don Northrup, died in 1996, the church’s current pastor, Terry Jones, took over. The church’s property in northwest Gainesville — for sale since last summer for $3.9 million — includes a religious academy and the Lisa Jones House, which provides essential goods to people living in poverty.