This article was first published in April 2006. It was updated in 2008 to reflect the church's plans to picket the funeral of actor Heath Ledger.
For a congregation that is mostly reviled, Westboro Baptist Church claims to have two major allies: God and the Constitution.
Proclaiming “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers,” the small band of evangelicals from Topeka, Kan., has ignited a firestorm by spreading its gospel of damnation at the funerals of AIDS victims and slain soldiers.
Its members may even picket the funeral of Heath Ledger , a straight actor who played a gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain."
The church calls its protests free speech. Grieving families and many lawmakers call them an affront to decency, and have sought new laws aimed at keeping protesters away from funerals.
Westboro has challenged such efforts before, forcing changes to Kansas laws and collecting more than $200,000 in legal fees.
The courts are familiar territory for the church and its leader.
Long before the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and his "old-school” ministry hit the streets, he was championing the cause of blacks as a civil rights attorney.
“I felt some providential call on the matter,” Phelps, 76, said of his decision to become a lawyer shortly after founding Westboro in 1955. The law “was an adjunct to my ministry.”
For more than three decades Phelps’ legal prowess earned him acclaim and derision. While his career ended in disgrace, his zeal for the courtroom rubbed off: Eleven of Phelps’ 13 children are lawyers and now do the church's bidding in court.
A message of hate
Phelps’ anti-gay protests began in earnest in the early 1990s after he was disbarred amid a drawn-out fight with state investigators and federal judges. His group took to the streets and the Internet, claiming gays were taking over the country.
Westboro gained national notoriety at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who died after two men lured him from a bar, beat him and tied him to a fence outside Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998. Phelps' followers showed up with signs that read "God hates fags" and said Shepard was in hell.
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The church’s 75 members, most of whom are related to Phelps, seize upon disasters and calamities, including roadside bombs in Iraq, the attacks of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the recent mining deaths in West Virginia, as God’s punishment for a country that tolerates gays.
“God promised dire outpourings of very painful wrath, and there’s nothing more painful than killing one of your children and that’s what’s going on in Iraq,” Phelps said. “That’s what we’re preaching and the forum of choice to deliver such a message, obviously, is the funeral of the kid that’s been blown to smithereens."
While many of Westboro’s early protests were ignored, the group’s protests at military funerals have caused outrage.
“If they want to demonstrate their disagreement with the war, then do it where it makes sense — in Washington, D.C., outside the Capitol or White House,” said Jerry Newberry, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “But the Phelps family isn’t even protesting the fact that we’re at war. Their whole thing is based on some lunatic, pathological hatred for homosexuals. They have no shame.”
A group of motorcyclists calling themselves the Patriot Guard Riders has begun attending military funerals to shield families from Westboro members.
Nearly 30 states have taken up laws restricting graveside demonstrations. Kentucky is the latest, adopting a measure in late March that bars protests within 300 feet of a funeral from an hour before until an hour after the ceremony. Similar measures have passed in Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Kansas may stiffen its existing funeral picketing law. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., have introduced federal legislation that would make it a felony to picket within 500 feet of a funeral.
Phelps revels in his critics’ anger and considers it a sign that he is doing God’s work. He isn’t out to save anyone, saying, “The time for repentance is over.”
“I’m Noah … and my only duty is to deliver with great fidelity an unambiguous message from God Almighty without any timidity,” Phelps said from his home in Topeka. “That’s my job, and it’s a matter of supreme irrelevance what people do with it.”
Phelps believes the new laws are unconstitutional, but said his group will abide by them and wait for Congress to act before challenging them in court.
Newberry backs the measures and thinks they will stand up in court, since similar limits on abortion protests have passed constitutional muster.
“Most of the legislation that I’ve seen has been very carefully crafted not to ban free speech,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union isn’t so sure.
“We’re paying close attention because of the First Amendment implications and [we] may be prepared to criticize legislation that restricts people’s lawful right to express ideas, as distasteful as they may be,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU’s national legislative office.
Fredrickson said the ACLU is concerned that new anti-picketing laws may be selectively enforced or needlessly ban demonstrations in areas that have traditionally been protected.
Phelps’ daughter and church attorney Shirley Phelps-Roper says Westboro doesn’t want or expect the ACLU’s help.
“You know that they don’t have any love lost for us,” she said. “It puts them in quite a quandary. The champions of our freedom are sitting around going, ‘Oh man, we hate (the Phelpses).’”
Westboro may not need help staging a legal fight.
Litany of litigation
During the 1990s, the church sued Topeka for millions, alleging the city had failed to protect Westboro members and had selectively prosecuted the group. Most of the lawsuits were dismissed, but in 1993 a state court awarded Westboro $43,000 in legal fees.
In 1995, Westboro sued Kansas over its Funeral Picketing Act, arguing the measure was too broad. The courts agreed. The state amended the law and the church was awarded more than $100,000, according to Phelps-Roper.
Westboro also sued Topeka over a law restricting picketing of church services. Every Sunday, Westboro pickets congregations that it says condone homosexuality. A court upheld the substance of Topeka’s law in 1995, but ordered the city to reduce its buffer zone from 90 feet to 50 feet and awarded the church thousands of dollars in legal fees, according to city attorney Brenden Long.
“They assert their right to free speech and also they consider it a form of religious service," Long said.
“I think that’s generally their defense if you file criminal charges, and certainly that’s their position if you enact statutes or ordinances that would restrict their ability to present their message as they see fit,” he said.
For faith or money?
Some question whether Phelps and his flock are true believers or opportunists.
“They use their legal gifts and expertise to advance their cause,” said Dr. Douglas Beyer, who for 13 years led a Baptist congregation located a few miles from Westboro. “I cannot judge the sincerity of someone. Whatever it is, it seems to be a good living for (Phelps). It seems to work. He’s found his niche and his claim to fame, and it’s not one that I envy.”
Beyer, now pastor emeritus at the Temple City (Calif.) Baptist Church, calls Phelps an “embarrassment” to mainstream Baptists.
Allegations that Westboro members have a profit motive have appeared on Internet message boards run by veterans and gay-rights groups. It's a claim also made by some ACLU officials and the military.
“This group does employ passive-aggressive techniques intended to provoke a hostile response or offensive reaction from others,” officers from the U.S. Northern Command wrote in an advisory sent to military bases in July. “They will employ written and verbal inflammatory language … to elicit desired responses. This group will then file a civil action in an effort to reach a settlement in order to fund future activities.”
Mark Kucharek, a spokesman for USNCOM, said the bulletin was based on information from law enforcement agencies and aimed to head off trouble at protests near military bases.
“There are passions on both sides of the issue and the idea is to let people know not to engage, not to confront,” Kucharek said. “Once you start to go toe-to-toe, things can get out of hand.”
‘Taxing the sinners to do God’s work’
Phelps-Roper dismisses the idea that Westboro profits by suing its critics. She said church members don’t have the time or resources to file lawsuits whenever they feel slighted.
But she adds: “They can pass all the laws in Christendom, but they can never stop us from telling them that God is punishing them. If they interfere with our capacity to cause America to know her abominations, we have no choice, we have to sue them.”
Phelps-Roper says Westboro is supported by members’ work at the family law firm, Phelps Chartered, and by the salaries of family members who work outside the firm, including at several public agencies. The church says it doesn’t solicit or accept donations.
“It would be a mistake to assume that this is simply all about the money,” said Rick Musser, a University of Kansas journalism professor who wrote about Westboro’s legal battles in his book, “Culture Wars & Local Politics.” “The connection is more nuanced than that. I’d be more likely to think that (Westboro) sees it as taxing the sinners to do God’s work through the hand of courts.”
Living on the edge
Phelps and his family have had a contentious relationship with the courts for years.
While Phelps earned commendations as a civil rights attorney, including an award from the Wichita chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he also raised the ire of state regulators with his hard-nosed style and big-money legal claims.
Phelps once sued President Reagan for appointing an envoy to the Vatican, claiming the move violated the separation of church and state.
He filed a $50 million class-action suit against Sears in 1974 for failing to deliver a TV before Christmas. Six years later, Phelps settled the case for $126 — less than the value of TV.
Also in 1974, Phelps earned a rebuke after suing a court reporter for failing to deliver a transcript on time. The Kansas Supreme Court, which reviewed state complaints stemming from the case, ruled that Phelps’ conduct was “abusive, repetitive, irrelevant, and represented a classic case of ‘badgering’ a witness.”
‘These are not unintelligent people’
Phelps was disbarred in 1979 after the state ruled he had fabricated witness testimony in an attempt to win a new trial for his lawsuit.
“These are not unintelligent people,” said Phil Harvey, a former assistant attorney general who led an investigation of Phelps' firm.
“I watched Fred Phelps try some jury trials when he was practicing law, and he was a skilled, very competent trial lawyer," Harvey said from his law office in Berkeley, Calif. "The problem is he knew very little bounds.”
Phelps was allowed to continue practicing law in federal court, but in 1989, a federal court in Kansas sanctioned Phelps and several family members for alleging that judges who refused to hear the family’s cases were racist.
Facing a court ultimatum, Phelps agreed to quit practicing law. His relatives were censured but retained their licenses.
‘That was the program’
Phelps’ children have worked on behalf of his causes ever since — all except for two estranged sons and a daughter, Dortha Bird, who says she left the church and changed her name 15 years ago “to pursue other things.”
Bird, an attorney in Topeka, said she often sees her family around town, waving brightly colored signs and declaring God’s hatred for gays and those perceived as sympathizers. She hasn’t talked to her parents or siblings for years.
“Either you’re in or you’re out,” Bird said.
She believes her father is ultimately driven by a need for control and attention.
“What he does, he does with all his will, his heart and his might,” Bird said. “He won’t be quiet. He can’t be quiet.”
The Associated Press and the Topeka Capital-Journal contributed to this report.
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