Westboro Baptist Church attendee seeks seat on Kansas education board

 

The Kansas City Star

Jack Wu isn’t shy about his beliefs.

Topeka is evil. Harry Potter promotes witchcraft. Christmas trees are pagan idols. Cancer is a judgment from God. And the teaching of evolution should be rooted out of Kansas schools because it’s a satanic lie.

He also believes that America’s public schools are cultivating a culture of “liars, thieves, murderers and perverts.”

Outside the mainstream? It doesn’t matter to Wu, running for a seat on the Kansas Board of Education.

A northern California transplant, Wu is seeking to defeat first-term Democrat Carolyn Campbell of Topeka in an admittedly uphill battle for the 4th District seat on the state school board. Uphill because he only received $5 in contributions through July, the most recent reporting period.

But Campbell is taking her Republican opponent seriously.

“I want to make sure the folks that don’t know Carolyn Campbell and her record will try to get to know me and understand who my opponent is and what he stands for,” Campbell said.

The 4th District covers six northeast Kansas counties and takes in parts of Topeka and Lawrence. Campbell’s district became a little more Republican this year when she picked up parts of Jefferson and Pottawatomie counties when election boundaries were redrawn to adjust for the census.

Teachers union officials also worry that voters who cast ballots along straight-party lines might be unaware of Wu’s background.

Wu’s campaign, small as it is, comes at a time when the state school board is expected to consider new science standards, raising the prospect of revisiting the evolution debate that consumed the board in 1999 and again in 2005 — an issue about which Wu has strong views.

Yet the 29-year-old Wu says it’s better to be loved by God and live in heaven than be loved by man and rot in hell.

“The truth matters more than the opinion of other men and women,” said Wu, clutching his green cloth-bound King James Bible during a recent interview on the grounds of state Capitol about a block away from the Kansas Department of Education’s offices.

“The Bible says if you’re hated by other people for taking a stance that’s not popular, it’s like a sign you’re chosen by God, almost,” added Wu, who describes himself as a reality television fan who works as a self-employed computer programmer and designer of video games.

His last-minute decision to file for the seat in June is drawing attention because he also attends Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church, which has gained national notoriety for picketing military funerals with signs that read, “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “God hates the USA” and “God hates fags.”

Last year, the church, led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, won a Supreme Court case blocking a civil lawsuit seeking damages for intentionally inflicting emotional distress at a soldier’s funeral in 2006. Wu said he has joined the congregation’s pickets in California and Topeka, but to the best of his recollection hasn’t participated in a protest at a military funeral.

Born in Taiwan and raised in a San Francisco suburb, Wu moved to Topeka in 2008 after learning about Westboro on an Internet message board.

Wu said he was drawn to the church’s all-or-nothing message of obey God or else. Westboro stands apart, he said, because its congregation confronts issues of heaven, hell and eternal fate. He believes Westboro preaches the Bible accurately and hasn’t watered down its message.

Church spokesman Jonathan Phelps, the son of the church’s leader, said he didn’t know much about Wu. He sees Wu at church most Sundays.

“It seems like he believes what he says,” Phelps said. “I think he’s a nice guy.”

But Campbell, 70, said she thinks Wu is negatively focused, especially with comments he’s posted on his Web site about public education “preparing its students to be liars, crooks, thieves, murderers, and perverts.”

“That is very sad that anyone would go that route in their thoughts about the education system,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for our educators. Anyone that decides to be a teacher starts out knowing that their income isn’t going to be what it could be. That shows they are dedicated to our children.”

And then there’s the issue of evolution.

Kansas is one of 26 states working with the National Research Council to develop voluntary standards to be used by multiple states. The proposed standards direct teachers to engage students in research in evolution and natural selection. Evolution’s pivotal place in life science is not diluted, and there is no mention of creationism.

If the proposed science standards came before the board today, the vote would likely be 7 to 3 in favor, political observers believe.

However, the standards won’t be complete until after the Nov. 6 school board election, when five seats will be on the ballot, including the race pitting Wu against Campbell, who favors teaching evolution.

While Wu appears to bring little firepower to the race — he lists no support from any prominent political groups — he’s not someone who should be overlooked, especially in a heavily Republican state, said Mark Desetti, lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association.

“We take everybody seriously, especially in a state where there is one-party dominance like there is in Kansas,” Desetti said.

Desetti cautioned that voters might be more focused on the presidential race and higher profile statehouse races, so it might be easy to overlook a state school board race and just vote along party lines.

“I honestly believe that if Kansans know this guy, if they know what he says, they would not vote for him,” he said. “I’ve read his Web site. I’ve read his views. As a parent, I would find them quite disturbing that he could be setting education policy for the state of Kansas.”

Wu said he is a graduate of what used to be called California State University-Hayward where he was involved in student government, and also ran for the Kansas House in 2010.

Wu is well aware of the attention his latest candidacy has attracted and expects people to scoff at his beliefs. But he said his candidacy is not about being part of the political mainstream.

“If you’re mainstream, you’re going to hell,” he said.

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