Westboro Baptist Church explored
BY BILL SHERMAN World Religion Writer
Sunday, November 07, 2010
11/07/10 at 5:31 AM
Related Story: Westboro members say hateful messages given in love
TOPEKA, Kan. - A compound in an upscale, older neighborhood five minutes west of the state Capitol is home to what may be the most hated family in the United States.
The compound includes all but two of the houses on the tree-lined block and Westboro Baptist Church, which is now in the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that it has a right to picket the funerals of fallen soldiers.
From this compound, Westboro's pastor, Fred Phelps, and his numerous children and grandchildren have mounted a virulent campaign against homosexuality, crisscrossing the country with signs that read "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."
A U.S. flag flies upside down - a signal of an emergency - over the compound. A huge banner on the church proclaims that God hates America.
Privacy fences between the houses block the view of their shared backyards, a neatly landscaped park-like open area with an in-ground swimming pool and playground equipment.
Phelps, a Topeka civil rights lawyer during the 1960s through the 1980s, has 13 children. Eleven are lawyers, and nine are directly involved in the church and the ministry. Four of them practice in the law firm that Phelps founded.
Most of his children - as well as 56 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren - live in the compound or within a block or two of it. The school-age children attend public schools, where they make good grades. Most of the adults hold professional jobs. Some of Phelps' children are estranged from the family and have spoken publicly against it.
The church is fenced and gated, but contrary to some rumors in Topeka, its services are open to the public, family members say.
Phelps still preaches a 45-minute sermon every Sunday to a congregation of about 70, nearly all of them related to him by blood or marriage.
Posters in the sanctuary declare: "Fag Media Shame" and "Jews Killed Jesus." Another poster suggests that President Barack Obama is the Antichrist.
The Phelpses are not shy about publicity, which they believe helps them spread their message: God's judgment is on America for its rebellion against God's law, exemplified by acceptance of homosexuality.
Since the church's Supreme Court appearance last month, teams from The New York Times, the BBC, Newsweek and Time magazines and other media outlets have visited the compound.
'Most Hated Family'
Phelps and his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper are banned from Great Britain, where the state-owned BBC told their story in a documentary, "The Most Hated Family in America."
Wearing a red jersey and tan sports jacket in his church office last week, the tall octogenarian readily talked about his civil rights work, his awards from the NAACP and other black civil rights groups, his Eagle Scout badge and his appointment to the U.S. Military Academy (at West Point, N.Y.), which he turned down in order to go into ministry.
He is less eager to explain why he was disbarred in 1979 by the Kansas Bar Association.
"You just want to try to embarrass somebody," he told the Tulsa World.
"If you've got all day and you want to hear a sad story about the American judicial mafia, I'm an expert at it," he declared.
"They didn't like me doing pro bono work for poor black people. I sued almost every corporation and governmental entity in the state of Kansas and usually won.
"The black folks love me."
Phelps-Roper, who is also a lawyer, said her father was wrongly disbarred but continued to practice law in the federal courts.
The Southern Poverty Law Center's website says Phelps was disbarred for having "little regard for the ethics of his profession." Mark Potok, the director of the center's Intelligence Project, said the center has listed Westboro Church as a hate group for about 15 years.
Phelps is the first and only pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, which was established in 1955 as a mission church of Eastside (Southern) Baptist Church in Topeka. The church and Phelps are now unaffiliated with any denomination.
'Rock solid truth'
Phelps sees himself as one of the last independent preachers proclaiming the "rock solid truth."
"The homosexuals have taken over this country, lock, stock and barrel, and I'm preaching about it because of Leviticus 18:22: 'Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind. It is abomination.' ... Twelve little words that would fix this miserable, doomed country," he said.
Until recently, he continued, "every state in the nation had an anti-sodomy law. In those days, I would have been in the great majority preaching this stuff.
"And that's my job, to preach it. The preachers in this country used to all preach it just like I preach it. ... I'm getting very lonely now, because they've disappeared."
Phelps was born and raised in Meridian, Miss., ordained in 1947 by the Southern Baptists and was a missionary to the Ute Indians in Utah.
He went into law to fight what he saw as social injustice while continuing to preach.
Phelps-Roper said the family's 25-year involvement in the civil rights movement prepared them for the onslaught of criticism they encountered when they began to protest homosexuality.
Incidents in a park
That fight began in 1991 a half-mile from her home in Topeka's Gage Park, which she described as a meeting place for gays cruising for partners.
"Dad was on a bike ride with one of his grandchildren. Passing by a wooded area, he sees some man has tried to get the boy into the woods," she said.
Phelps repeatedly appealed to the City Council to clean up the park, but nothing changed, she said.
"After two years, they were sick of seeing him, and we were sick of going," she said.
"So we started carrying signs in the park: 'Watch your kids,' and 'Gays in restrooms.' "
On their second time out, she said, "all hell broke out," as counterprotesters came to the park.
The family was determined not to back down, she said.
That was the beginning of a campaign that Phelps-Roper said has conducted more than 44,000 protests all over the country, including several in Oklahoma, at a cost of about $200,000 a year.
She is out almost every week.
"We work and we pay our own way. We don't accept money. If anyone sends money, we send it back," she said.
In addition to protesting, Phelps-Roper said, she gets about 15 to 20 invitations a year to speak at public and private high schools and universities and at the FBI Academy, usually on freedom of speech issues.
'Embarrassment to Topeka'
Topekans are not happy about the publicity Westboro Baptist Church has brought to the city.
"We don't agree with their message, and we don't condone their actions," said Mayor Bill Bunten, a former Kansas state legislator and University of Tulsa student.
"It's a negative for a really nice city."
He continued, "We understand that free speech is an important part of what the United States is, but we hope the Supreme Court rules against the church.
"They're bright and capable people. They could be a positive influence if their message was not so negative and hurtful. It's an embarrassment to Topeka."
Doug Kinsinger, the president and CEO of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, said the church "does not represent our community" and is a tiny fraction of its population.
"Over the years, community members from all walks of life have expressed concern and dismay about the WBC message," he said.
"Legal avenues have been explored and positive protests have happened. The members (of the church) are very aware of their legal and First Amendment rights."
Snyder v. Phelps
Albert Snyder sued Westboro Baptist Church for intentional infliction of emotional distress after Westboro members protested at the funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, a Marine who was killed in an accident in Iraq. A court ordered the church to pay $11 million to the family. That verdict was overturned, and that ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments last month. Margie J. Phelps, a daughter of Westboro's pastor, Fred Phelps, represented the church.
Original Print Headline: Inside Westboro Baptist Church Haven Of Hate
Bill Sherman 581-8398
Fred Phelps is the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, whose members are known for virulent protests against homosexuality, including pickets at military funerals. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World
The church flies a U.S. flag upside-down below the Israeli flag. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World
Topeka, Kan., Mayor Bill Bunten calls Westboro Baptist Church an embarrassment to the community. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World
Luke Phelps-Roper, 8, swings in his backyard in the Westboro Baptist Church compound. It's home to several members of the extended Phelps family. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World
Westboro Baptist Church's pastor, Fred Phelps, shows one of the first protest signs his church ever used. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World