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Religion department drops WBC proposal

For The Miami Student

Published: Thursday, September 22, 2011

Updated: Thursday, September 22, 2011 22:09

The department of comparative religion has decided to pull plans to invite a member of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) to Miami University's campus. The department was in the planning stages of bringing WBC member Shirley Phelps-Roper to professor Hillel Gray's 100-level class on religious extremism, according to Stephen Nimis, comparative religion department chair.

The department will instead invite Gray to lecture on his previous WBC research. The department considered having Gray interview Phelps-Roper off-campus for subsequent viewing by his class, but decided against this option.

Confusion surrounding the WBC visit swept the Miami community when an article in the Sept. 20 issue of The Miami Student said College of Arts and Science Dean Phyllis Callahan had approved the speaker. Miami officials denied Callahan had approved the department's proposal to bring WBC to campus.

Comparative religion professor Liz Wilson declined to comment on why she told The Miami Student Sept. 19 that the proposal had Callahan's approval.

"They had a proposal, they left with notes and questions," Callahan said. "The proposal was not accepted."

It is unlikely a stamp of approval from the administration was necessary to bring a WBC member to campus for a classroom visit and public playback of an interview.

Faculty members have the right to bring nearly any guest speaker to class under the principles of academic freedom.

The proposal from the comparative religion department was not to seek approval, but to give notice and invite input concerning the plans.

"We knew the visit would be controversial and therefore were giving a heads up to the college leadership," Nimis said via email.

The university would only intervene under extreme circumstances, such as a threat to campus security, according to Miami President David Hodge.

"We have limited authority to step in and tell someone they can't do something unless we fear for the safety of others," Hodge said.

Callahan said academic freedom is "at the heart" of a university campus.

"We do not restrict faculty members' ability to invite a guest speaker to their class," Callahan said.

The dean questioned the risk associated with bringing a known hate group to campus.

"Because you can do something, should you do it?" Callahan said. "If I have an approval voice, I will not approve it."

The WBC expressed dismay at the comparative religion department's decision to pull its tentative offer.

"It's just a sad state of affairs, especially in the university forum, for people to be so scared about what the Bible really says that they would pull an offer," WBC member Steve Drain said. "That's not an open exchange of ideas at that university."

Before the invitation was pulled, The Miami Student asked Phelps-Roper whether the group would stage a Miami picket if uninvited.

"We're not going to make a special trip there," Phelps-Roper said. "We'll be there if this is what [God] is to have us do."

Hodge said the visit could have provided an interesting learning experience for the Miami community had the proposal moved forward.

"It [would have been] a chance for our students to see these people, to put them under the lens of academic inquiry, by no means giving them a venue to stand up and spew their hatred," Hodge said.

Gray's lecture on his WBC research is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 25.

Before the proposal was abandoned, the Comparative Religion Student Association planned to request Associated Student Government (ASG) funding for the WBC visit. At a funding hearing Thursday evening, it instead requested the funds for Gray's lecture. ASG has given initial approval to the request.

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