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Context of 'April 3, 2008: Judge Assesses $5 Million in Damages against Anti-Gay Church for Picketing Soldier’s Funeral'

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Part of the Westboro Baptist Church as it appears in recent years. The URL “godhatesamerica.com” is written on a banner hanging in front of the church.Part of the Westboro Baptist Church as it appears in recent years. The URL “godhatesamerica.com” is written on a banner hanging in front of the church. [Source: Ask (.com)]The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas, holds its first services under the auspices of Pastor Fred Waldron Phelps. Phelps, his wife, nine of his 13 children, and their spouses and children make up the core of the WBC’s small congregation. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) will describe the church as a virtual cult led by Phelps. Phelps and his extended family members live in houses on the WBC compound in Topeka, with the houses arranged in a box formation and sharing a central backyard. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] The congregation will quickly begin shedding members because of Phelps’s vitriolic preaching, and for a time Phelps will attempt to support the church by selling vacuum cleaners and baby carriages door-to-door. For years, much of the church’s income comes from Phelps’s children, who regularly sell candy door-to-door. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001]
Atmosphere of Fear, Abuse Alleged - According to one of Phelps’s estranged children, Nathan Phelps, Phelps uses violence and abuse to keep the members in line; in the SPLC’s words, “cultivating an atmosphere of fear to maintain his authority.” Nathan and his two siblings, Mark Phelps, and Dortha Bird, will later leave the church and family, and all three will allege physical and psychological abuse in multiple newspaper and television interviews. Fred Phelps will dismiss all the allegations as “a sea of fag lies.” Nathan will allege that his father beat him with a leather strap and a mattock handle until he “couldn’t lie down or sit down for a week.” They will also allege that Phelps beat his wife, forced his children to fast, and other charges. No child abuse charges brought against Phelps will ever result in convictions, usually because the children will refuse to testify out of what Nathan Phelps will call fear of reprisal. Children in the Phelps family are kept close to the church, and, the SPLC will write, “their upbringing offers them few opportunities to integrate into mainstream society. It is common to see young children from the Phelps family at WBC pickets, often holding the group’s hateful signs. These children casually use the words ‘fag’ and ‘dyke’ in interviews, and the older children report having no close friends at school. The Phelps family raises its children to hold hateful and upsetting views, and to believe that all people not in WBC will go to hell.… The children quickly grow alienated in school and in society, leading them to build relationships almost exclusively within the family. This helps to explain why nine of Fred Phelps’ 13 children have remained members of the church.” [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Phelps, who dropped out of the fundamentalist religious Bob Jones University, was ordained as a Baptist minister at the age of 17. He met his future wife Marge Phelps after his California street ministry against dirty jokes and sexual petting was the subject of a Time magazine profile. Between 1952 and 1968 the couple will have 13 children. Phelps will go on to earn a law degree from Washburn University in 1962, though he has some difficulty being admitted to the Kansas bar because no judge will be willing to vouch for his good character. Between 1951 and 2010, Phelps will be arrested multiple times for assault, battery, threats, trespassing, disorderly conduct, and contempt of court. He will be convicted four times, but will successfully avoid prison. He will decorate his WBC compound with an enormous upside-down American flag. He will go on to vilify both liberal and conservative lawmakers, including future President Ronald Reagan, and will praise enemies of the nation such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Mark Phelps will later call his father “a small, pathetic old man” who “behaves with a viciousness the likes of which I have never seen.” All three estranged children say that Phelps routinely refers to African-Americans as “dumb n_ggers.” Bird later says, “He only started picketing in 1991, but I want people to understand that nothing’s changed, he’s been like this all along.” She will change her last name to Bird to celebrate her new-found freedom away from the family, though she will continue to live in the Topeka area. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001]
Fundamentalist Doctrine - Phelps teaches a fundamentalist version of Calvinist doctrine called “Primitive Baptist,” in which members believe that God only chooses a select few to be saved, and everyone else is doomed to burn in hell. The WBC Web site will later explain: “Your best hope is that you are among those he has chosen. Your prayer every day should be that you might be. And if you are not, nothing you say or do will serve as a substitute.”
Successful Lawsuits Help Fund Church - In 1964, Phelps will found a law firm specifically for defending the church against civil suits; the firm employs five attorneys, all children of Phelps. Phelps himself is a lawyer, but he will be disbarred in 1979 by the Kansas Supreme Court, which will find that he shows “little regard for the ethics of his profession.” The church does not solicit or accept outside donations; much of its funding comes from successful lawsuits against the Topeka city government and other organizations and individuals. The SPLC will explain, “Because the Phelps family represents WBC in court, they can put the fees they win towards supporting the church.” As of 2007, many Phelps family members will work for the state government, bringing additional revenue to the church. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Nathan Phelps will later say that his father routinely files frivolous lawsuits in the hope that his targets will settle out of court rather than face the expenditures of a bench trial. (One extreme example is a 1974 class action suit demanding $50 million from Sears over the alleged delay in delivering a television set. In 1980, Sears will settle the suit by paying Phelps $126. Another, more lucrative example is a 1978 civil rights case that earns Phelps almost $10,000 in legal fees as part of the settlement of a discrimination case.) [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001]
Reviling Homosexuality - One of the central tenets of the church’s practices is the vilification of homosexuality, which the church will use to propel itself into the public eye (see June 1991 and After, 1996, June 2005 and After, September 8, 2006, October 2-3, 2006, and April 2009). The church’s official slogan is “God Hates Fags.” The church will begin its anti-gay crusade in the late 1980s with the picketing of a Topeka park allegedly frequented by homosexuals. In the early 1990s, WBC will launch its nationwide anti-gay picketing crusade. The church will win international notoriety with its picketing of the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay student brutally murdered in Wyoming (see October 14, 1998 and October 3, 2003). After the 9/11 attacks, the church will begin claiming that God brought about the attacks to punish America for its tolerance of homosexuality (see September 8, 2006). The church will also begin picketing the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005, claiming that God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality and persecuting the WBC (see June 2005 and After). The church will win notable victories in court regarding its right to protest at funerals (see March 10, 2006 and After and June 5, 2007 and After). Nations such as Canada and the United Kingdom will ban WBC members from entering their borders to engage in protest and picketing activities (see August 2008 and February 2009). [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Phelps will write in an undated pamphlet detailing the “message” of the WBC: “America is doomed for its acceptance of homosexuality. If God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for going after fornication and homosexuality then why wouldn’t God destroy America for the same thing?” In 2001, a Topeka resident will tell an SPLC researcher: “I’m so tired of people calling him an ‘anti-gay activist.’ He’s not an anti-gay activist. He’s a human abuse machine.” [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL): “Though the group’s specific focus may shift over time, they believe that nearly all Americans and American institutions are ‘sinful,’ so nearly any individual or organization can be targeted. In fact, WBC members say that ‘God’s hatred is one of His holy attributes’ and that their picketing is a form of preaching to a ‘doomed’ country unable to hear their message in any other way.” [Anti-Defamation League, 2012]

Entity Tags: Fred Waldron Phelps, Matthew Shepard, Kansas Supreme Court, Mark Phelps, Dortha Bird, Marge Phelps, Anti-Defamation League, Nathan Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church, Southern Poverty Law Center

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

The virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) begins picketing the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, displaying signs such as “God Hates Fags” and “Fag Navy” that insult both homosexuals and soldiers. The church says that God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality and persecuting the church. The church even claims that God chose to use improvised explosive devices—IEDs—to kill American soldiers because of an August 1995 attack on the WBC compound by someone wielding a small explosive device. Fred Phelps, the leader of the WBC, tells Fox News: “God is visiting the sins upon America by killing their kids with IEDs… and the more the merrier. Seventeen hundred so far, to 17,000. We will be ecstatic about [further deaths].” The first funeral picketed by the WBC is that of Corporal Carrie French of Boise, Idaho, who was killed on June 5 in Iraq. Phelps says of French and other slain soldiers, “Our attitude toward what’s happening with the war is [that] the Lord is punishing this evil nation for abandoning all moral imperatives that are worth a dime.” In 2006, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) will observe: “As a result of his amazing vitriol, Phelps has managed to do something few others have—unite Americans from the far right all the way over to the liberal left. Several anti-gay organizations have wondered aloud if he was some kind of plant designed to sully their cause. Be that as it may, the funeral picketing has prompted a number of patriotic groups to create motorcycle escorts to shield mourners from the Phelps crew, and to drown out their anti-gay chants with their engines. Numerous municipalities are weighing laws to prevent funeral pickets. But nothing has stopped Phelps, whose message, ‘Thank God for Dead Soldiers,’ remains unchanged.” [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2006; Global Oneness, 2011; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] In 2006, Phelps will say, “Military funerals are pagan orgies of idolatrous blasphemy where they pray to the dunghill gods of Sodom and play taps to a fallen fool.” [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012]

Entity Tags: Westboro Baptist Church, Southern Poverty Law Center, Fred Waldron Phelps, Carrie French

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Albert Snyder.Albert Snyder. [Source: Associated Press]The virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) pickets the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine slain in Iraq (see June 2005 and After). WBC protesters display signs with slogans such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “Semper Fi Fags,” while another signs depicts two stick figures engaging in what appears to be sodomy. The church also posts derogatory statements about Snyder and his father, Albert Snyder, on its Web site. In response, Albert Snyder sues the church in a Baltimore court for defamation, invasion of privacy, and emotional distress. [New York Times, 10/26/2007; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Snyder claims his First Amendment rights to the freedom of religious exercise and assembly were violated, and the WBC claims its right to freedom of speech is violated by Snyder’s lawsuit. Snyder names WBC pastor Fred W. Phelps Sr.; church officials Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah A. Phelps-Davis, and other adult members of the church, including two of the elder Phelps’s daughters. The Phelpses and four of the pastor’s grandchildren picketed the funeral. [Topeka Capital-Journal, 10/2/2010] First Amendment expert Ronald K.L. Collins is leery of the case, saying: “The dangerous principle here is runaway liability in a way that would put the First Amendment in serious jeopardy. I dread to think what it would do to political protests in this country if it were allowed the win.” [New York Times, 10/26/2007]

Entity Tags: Ronald K.L. Collins, Matthew Snyder, Fred Waldron Phelps, Albert Snyder, Rebekah A. Phelps-Davis, Shirley Phelps-Roper, Westboro Baptist Church

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

A jury in the case of Snyder v. Phelps awards $11 million to Albert Snyder, finding that the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After), its leader Fred Phelps, and six other members had intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the Snyder family and violated its privacy. Snyder is the father of a slain Marine, and the members of the WBC had picketed his son’s funeral with signs featuring stick figures engaged in sex acts and messages such as “Semper Fi Fags,” and posted derogatory statements about them on the WBC Web site (see March 10, 2006 and After). The WBC has a history of picketing the funerals of dead American soldiers, claiming the soldiers’ deaths are God’s punishment for America’s tolerance for homosexuality (see June 2005 and After). [Southern Poverty Law Center, 12/2007; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] The judge will later reduce the judgment against the WBC to $5 million (see April 3, 2008).

Entity Tags: Albert Snyder, Westboro Baptist Church

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Judge Richard D. Bennett of the US District Court in Maryland orders liens against properties owned by the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) to secure damages awarded at trial. For decades, the WBC has protested against homosexuality and other “offenses,” and has since 2005 picketed soldiers’ funerals (see June 2005 and After), causing tremendous controversy. The church is being sued by Albert Snyder, whose son, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, died in service. The WBC protested at the younger Snyder’s funeral, prompting the lawsuit (see March 10, 2006 and After). The jury awarded the Snyder family $11 million in compensatory and punitive damages (see October 2007), but Bennett reduces this to $5 million, which includes $2.1 million in punitive charges. One of Snyder’s lawyers says, based on his analysis of WBC financial records, that if the church is forced to pay even the lower amount, it would likely drive it into bankruptcy. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 12/2007; Topeka Capital-Journal, 4/4/2008]

Entity Tags: Westboro Baptist Church, Albert Snyder, Richard D. Bennett, Matthew Snyder, Phelps Chartered Law

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

An appeals court overturns the verdict in Snyder v. Phelps, in which the father of a slain Marine was awarded $5 million in a judgment against the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After). WBC members had picketed the funeral of Matthew Snyder (see March 10, 2006 and After), and Snyder’s father Albert Snyder filed a lawsuit against the WBC claiming harassment and the infliction of severe emotional distress (see October 2007 and April 3, 2008). The appeals court rules that even though the WBC protesters displayed “utterly distasteful” signs at Snyder’s funeral, the signs commented on issues of “public concern” and were therefore constitutionally protected speech. The court also orders Snyder to pay the church over $16,000 in legal feels and court costs, a decision Snyder calls “a slap in the face.” Snyder will appeal to the US Supreme Court (see March 2, 2011). [Southern Poverty Law Center, 12/2007; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012; Anti-Defamation League, 2012]

Entity Tags: Matthew Snyder, Albert Snyder, Westboro Baptist Church, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

The US Supreme Court finds in favor of the vehemently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) in a court case brought by the father of a slain Marine whose funeral was disrupted by a WBC protest (see March 10, 2006 and After and October 2007). A court initially rendered an initial judgment of $5 million against the group for causing “excessive” pain and suffering to the family (see April 3, 2008), but an appeals court overturned that verdict (see March 2010). Snyder appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that as a private citizen and not a public figure, he had an expectation of privacy that the WBC violated. “The [WBC protesters’] freedom of speech should have ended where it conflicted with Mr. Snyder’s freedom to participate in his son’s funeral, which was intended to be a solemn religious gathering,” Snyder’s lawyers argued before the Court. For their side, WBC lawyers, including church member Margie Phelps, argued that Snyder was indeed something of a public figure because he spoke to reporters after his son’s death and after the funeral, including giving quotes to reporters that excoriated the WBC. Additionally, the WBC denied interfering with or disrupting the funeral, and said that it was “well within the bounds of the law” when it picketed the funeral and used speech that was “hyperbolic, figurative, and hysterical.” The WBC pickets funerals, its lawyers argued, “to use an available public platform when the living contemplate death, to deliver the message that there is a consequence for sin.… It was about publicly-funded funerals of publicly-funded soldiers dying in an extremely public war because of very public policies of sin, including homosexuality, divorce, remarriage, and Roman Catholic priests molesting children.… The fact the speech was hyperbolic, figurative, and hysterical is why it should be protected. [It is] the essence of the kind of robust speech on critical public issues for which the First Amendment was written.” The Court rules 8-1 in favor of the WBC, saying that the group’s First Amendment rights protect it in debating public issues. Only Justice Samuel Alito dissents. The Court also notes that the WBC obeyed directions from local officials, kept a distance from the church where the Snyder funeral was held, and did not directly disrupt the funeral service. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts finds: “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” Many critics celebrate the reversal, saying that while the WBC’s actions were reprehensible, the original trial verdict, which found grounds for cause under the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, could be used to suppress freedom of expression in a number of other venues. [Topeka Capital-Journal, 10/2/2010; Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/2/2011; Anti-Defamation League, 2012; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Opponents of the WBC say they are relieved that the ruling does not impact laws designed to protect grieving families from the church’s protests at funerals (see January 11, 2011). Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt criticizes the Court’s ruling, saying: “Today’s decision is a disappointment for Kansans who have endured for so long the embarrassment brought upon our state by the shameful conduct of the Westboro Baptist Church. Our hearts go out to the Snyder family whose pain and distress were at issue in this case.” [Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/2/2011] Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, says the ruling is more positive than negative: “Our highest court has reinforced the belief that our individual rights to free speech and assembly are so critical that we all must be willing to tolerate even that which the majority might find abhorrent.… It doesn’t say that what the Phelps family does or says is right. It simply says that in the United States, it is protected speech. When we start regulating speech, we’re headed down a very slippery slope. The Supreme Court is to be commended for refusing to take that route.” Snyder says the ruling shows that “eight justices don’t have the sense God gave a goat.” [Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/2/2011]

Entity Tags: Derek Schmidt, Doug Anstaett, John G. Roberts, Jr, Samuel Alito, Albert Snyder, Margie Phelps, Matthew Snyder, US Supreme Court, Westboro Baptist Church

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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