During the last weekend in July, The Kolbe Academy, a Catholic homeschool program located in Napa, California will host a conference in Sacramento where educators and home school instructors will gather to discuss how they can "engage the culture in a year of faith."
Ordinarily, such a program would come and go unnoticed. But this year, featured amongst a lineup of distinguished speakers, is Robert Spencer, a controversial anti-Muslim blogger who civil rights organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League label a "hate group leader." This places him in close proximity to KKK leaders, the Black Panther Party, and neo-Nazi groups.
His scheduled appearance casts a negative light on what should be a positive event. It also raises questions about why a man whose writing was cited thirteen dozen times by the Norway terrorist Anders Breivik, who slaughtered 77 youth campers in Oslo in 2010, was ever invited to speak about youth education in the first place.
Spencer, a Catholic deacon from New Hampshire and director of the blacklist blog Jihad Watch, is set to appear as part of a speaking lineup that includes prominent clergy and educators from all across the United States. Once the director of Kolbe Academy, where he also served as a history and classics teacher, his publications include "Classical Education in the Contemporary World" and "How to Introduce Your Child to Classical Music in 52 Easy Lessons."
In recent years, though, his focus on Bach, Beethoven and the teachings of St. Ignatius have given way to a more pernicious fixation: "creeping Sharia," "stealth jihad," and the supposed threat of radical Muslims in the United States.
Spencer's imbalanced and perverted writings on Islam, which focus entirely on violence, and his work alongside anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller, have led the federal government to reject the trademark application for his hate group, Stop the Islamization of America.
The ruling states that the group disparages Muslims. Given that one former board member, John Jay, once recommended burning all mosques and sending Muslim immigrants "back to their countries," it's not hard to see why.
This week, the British government served Mr. Spencer with a travel ban, forbidding him to enter the country ahead of a scheduled rally with the English Defence League. The group's leader, Tommy Robinson, has served prison time for passport fraud and been arrested for assault. Its members assaulted police officers with pig heads.
In addition to trolling Twitter and antagonizing his detractors with endless (and elementary) tirades of Nazi references and other name-calling, Spencer, who claims to be a "scholar," has argued that there is no distinction between American Muslims and radical, violent jihadists. To that end, he's marshaled public stunts that seek to advance that wild claim.
He and Geller were behind the raucous Park 51 protests in Manhattan in 2010, and the duo recently took their battle to metro and bus stops in major metropolitan cities, including Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York.
Controversial advertisements sponsored by the pair equated Muslims with savages and presented violent acts of notorious terrorists like Osama bin Laden as normative of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims.
At a recent town forum on Muslim civil liberties in Tennessee, their supporters shouted down speakers and verbally abused police officers. They cheered at slideshow images of burned down mosques and booed at pics of American Muslim soldiers.
All of this begs very obvious questions: Is this the type of person with whom the Kolbe Academy and Catholic homeschoolers in California want to be associated? What could Spencer possibly say about classical education or Catholic values that would diminish his stature as a man banned by foreign governments, cited by global terrorists, and championed by prejudiced individuals who spread their vile in the bowels of the blogosphere?
There is a more important question, though. Did the Kolbe Academy know of Spencer's background before they invited him? And if so, why did they proceed with a speaking invitation? What does that say about their organization?
David Duke, the notorious Grand Wizard and white supremacist, had political experience but no one would dare seek his advice or remarks on politics at a public gathering because of his associations with the nastiest aspects of our country's history.
If any religious group in the United States understands the harmful effects of prejudice, it is Catholics. Throughout the 1900s, they were on the receiving end of the same stereotypes and associations that Spencer aims at Muslims today.
The Santa Rosa Diocese, which governs the Kolbe Academy, should follow the actions of the Worcester Diocese in Massachusetts, which rescinded Spencer's invitation to speak at a men's conference in Massachusetts in March. The Sacramento Diocese, which governs St. Stephen The First Martyr Parish, the parish where the event will be held, should do the same.
Hate speech has no place in any religious institution, Islamic, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise, and it is incumbent on leaders in all faith communities to reject it.
Most certainly, hate speech has no place in the education of our young people. Whether a private homeschool academy like Kolbe, or a public institution, the voices in our society that seek to magnify our religious differences and convince us that those who believe differently are suspicious and even violent must not be offered prominent platforms for their rhetoric.
This is not a time for excuses or for justifications. It is an occasion for principled action and for a commitment to a future where hate group leaders cited by world terrorists don't set the tone of our conversations about education, religion, or any topic.
The Kolbe Academy should do the right thing and rescind Robert Spencer's invitation to speak at their upcoming conference.
Mrs. Mary Rowles
Director, Kolbe Academy
Most Reverend Jaime Soto, Bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento
This blog post is a revised version of an op-ed that ran on July 25, 2013 in the Napa Valley Register.