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Context of 'June 2005 and After: Anti-Gay Church Begins Picketing Slain Soldiers’ Funerals'

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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

Angry community members in Smyrna and Ashland City, Tennessee, chase protesters from the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After), which has recently announced its intention to protest at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (see June 2005 and After). The WBC says God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality by killing its soldiers in war, and its protests are designed to highlight that assertion. About 10 WBC members picket near the funerals of Staff Sergeant Asbury Fred Hawn II and Specialist Gary Reese Jr. Both were members of the Tennessee National Guard. Local residents have little sympathy for the WBC position; many chase the protesters’ cars down a highway, waving flags and shouting, “God bless America.” Local resident Connie Ditmore tells a reporter: “My husband is over there, so I’m here to show my support. To do this at a funeral is disrespectful of a family, no matter what your beliefs are.” The 10 WBC protesters are countered by hundreds of local residents, including many family members of other soldiers serving overseas. Sheriff’s deputies and state troopers are on hand to protect the protesters. As counter-demonstrators shout, “Get out of our town!” and “Get out of our country!” resident Danny Cotton says: “If they were protesting the government, I might even join them. But for them to come during the worst time for this family—it’s just wrong.” [Associated Press, 8/27/2005]

Entity Tags: Connie Ditmore, Asbury Fred Hawn II, Gary Reese, Jr., Danny Cotton, Westboro Baptist Church

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

The federal “Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act” is passed by Congress, and will be signed into law on May 29. The law forbids protests at funerals within 300 feet of any national cemetery from 60 minutes before the funeral to 60 minutes afterwards. The law was written in response to controversial protests by the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, which has taken to protesting at the funerals of soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan (see June 2005 and After). In the months to follow, 20 states will enact similar laws, and many cities will pass ordinances tailored to prevent the WBC from protesting at local funerals, especially those of fallen soldiers. The American Civil Liberties Union will file lawsuits on behalf of the WBC’s right to free expression in Missouri and Ohio without success. [US Congress, 4/29/2006; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Some of the statutes include restrictions on faxing, in response to the WBC’s notorious use of faxes to inundate its enemies with floods of hate statements and other documents. Many of these attempts to restrict the WBC’s use of faxes ultimately fail, even though many of the faxes are defamatory and contain what many consider to be pornographic images. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001; Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001]

Entity Tags: Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act, Westboro Baptist Church, American Civil Liberties Union

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

The virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) announces its intention to picket the funerals of five Amish girls murdered in a Pennsylvania schoolhouse. The organization agrees to abstain from picketing in return for an hour of airtime on talk show host Mike Gallagher’s radio program. WBC leader Shirley Phelps-Roper tells Fox News host Sean Hannity that the Amish girls “did deserve to die.” [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] “The Lord your God is ramping up the issues, is smiting this nation,” she says. “What he did with one stroke on that day, sending a pervert in—because America is a nation of perverts—it’s appropriate he sent a pervert in to shoot those children. The Amish people were laid to an open shame because they are a false religion.” Phelps-Roper says that the girls also deserved to die because Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell had committed “blasphemous sins” against the WBC. Rendell had criticized the church for protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed overseas (see June 2005 and After) and has signed legislation restricting protests at funerals. [New York Times, 10/6/2006; Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2009]

Entity Tags: Sean Hannity, Edward Gene (“Ed”) Rendell, Mike Gallagher, Shirley Phelps-Roper, Westboro Baptist Church

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

The I-35W bridge collapse, four days after its occurrence.The I-35W bridge collapse, four days after its occurrence. [Source: Cobb Law Group]The anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) announces its intention to picket the funerals of the people who died in a recent bridge collapse in Minnesota. The Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, recently collapsed, killing 13 and injuring 145. The WBC released a statement after the collapse celebrating the deaths of the victims, saying that America, Minnesota, and Minneapolis are all being punished for tolerating homosexuality. Minnesota is the “land of the Sodomite damned,” the church states. WBC leader Shirley Phelps-Roper tells a reporter that the bridge collapse was an act of divine vengeance: “The bridge stood in place by the word of God and it fell by the word of God.… Each of these little events is just a harbinger of the coming destruction of this American experiment. We are delivering the final call of the doomed nation.” According to Phelps-Roper, signs at the protest will read, “God cast down the bridge,” “Thank God for 9/11” (see September 8, 2006), “America is doomed,” “God hates fags,” “God hates fag enablers,” and “God hates Minnesota.” [Minnesota Star-Tribune, 8/2/2007; Minnesota Monitor, 8/7/2007; Think Progress, 8/7/2007; MPR Archive, 2011] The announced protests never take place, and no local supporters turn out for any of the funerals. Local reporter and columnist Paul Schmelzer writes that the WBC is “notorious for no-shows,” and that the press releases are often issued to garner publicity and stir up controversy. Phelps-Roper implies that the protests are called off because the group feels threatened, saying, “When we have to divert a group because there’s something we need to get to more importantly, or we divert the group because we see the location where we’re headed to is so filled with rage that the gloves are off—they’re unabashedly breathing out threatening and slaughter—then we won’t come.” The ‘more important’ activities are protests at funerals of slain soldiers (see June 2005 and After): “[God] said, ‘I’ll drag you into a war you cannot win, and I will dash your children to pieces.’ Now how are we gonna connect that dot, if we don’t get to those dead soldiers’ funerals?… We’ve got all the time in the world. You’re going to be fishing bodies out of there for weeks. There will be more memorial services and there will be more funerals, and along the way we will pick some of them off.” [Twin Cities Daily Planet, 8/10/2007]

Entity Tags: Westboro Baptist Church, Paul Schmelzer, Shirley Phelps-Roper

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

Between two and three thousand people gather in what media reports call a “human buffer” to protect a military funeral from protesters sent by the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After). For at least five years, WBC members have picketed funerals of fallen soldiers, often using derogatory signs and catcalls during the proceedings (see June 2005 and After). The funeral is for Army Corporal Jacob R. Carver, and takes place in Harrisonville, Missouri, at the Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. Carver was slain in Afghanistan on November 13. Local resident Steve Nothnagel, who takes part in the event, says: “This soldier died so [WBC leader Fred Phelps] could do what he does, as stupid as that is. I’m so proud of what is happening here today. This is a community coming together. I know it’s not just Harrisonville; they’re coming from all over.” The protection event was organized by word of mouth and on Facebook, and was modeled on a recent, similarly successful event in Weston, Missouri. The protective protest is so large that the WBC protesters have to conduct their protest almost a third of a mile away. When the WBC protesters begin shouting that Carver and other American soldiers died because of the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality, the counter-protesters override their shouts with verses of “God Bless America” and chants of “USA! USA!” and “Go home! Go home!” One man says, “We can’t stop them, but we can be louder.” The WBC contingent leaves before the funeral procession passes them, perhaps because of an altercation that nearly breaks out between the two groups. Area firefighter John Yeager, part of the “human buffer,” says: “We’re here for the family. Nobody should have to hear that on this day.” A group of motorcyclists and US veterans known as the Patriot Guard Riders also takes part in the preventative buffer; the Riders appear when invited to military funerals to protect the funeral proceedings from the WBC protests. One of the Riders, Donna Byam, says: “Look at all those flags out waving out there. [Phelps is] responsible for that.” Her husband Brad Byam agrees, adding, “A silver lining in a dark cloud.” [Associated Press, 11/24/2010]

Entity Tags: Steve Nothnagel, Brad Byam, Donna Byam, John Yeager, Fred Waldron Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church, Jacob R. Carver, Patriot Guard Riders

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Members of the Patriot Guard Riders block Westboro Baptist Church protesters from the view of memorial proceedings in Joplin, Missouri.Members of the Patriot Guard Riders block Westboro Baptist Church protesters from the view of memorial proceedings in Joplin, Missouri. [Source: PoliticusUSA]A number of members of the vehemently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) protest at a memorial in Joplin, Missouri, where 125 people died in a recent outbreak of tornadoes. In a press release, the WBC said, “Thank God for 125 dead in Joplin,” and announced its plans to send protesters to the memorial service. WBC members claim Governor Jay Nixon (R-MO) has attacked them by promoting laws banning them from protesting at soldiers’ funerals (see June 2005 and After). President Obama speaks at the memorial service. According to one participant at the memorial service, some 300 members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a group composed largely of veterans who work to form “human shields” between WBC protesters and funeral services, almost completely block the view of the memorial participants from the WBC protesters. One WBC member attempts to walk through the “wall” of Riders toward the memorial, but is accosted and prevented from proceeding; apparently the WBC member is repeatedly pushed and has his shirt torn off. The police succeed in separating the WBC member and the Riders, apparently using pepper spray, and tell the WBC member to “run, you stupid motherf_cker.” A reporter later writes, “No one was injured and the confrontation lasted only seconds.” Allegedly, another group of WBC members is accosted by Riders at a nearby truck stop and prevented from going to the memorial service. [KARK-TV, 5/27/2011; PoliticusUSA, 5/30/2011; Ozarks First, 5/30/2011; Truth Wins Out, 5/30/2011]

Entity Tags: Patriot Guard Riders, Barack Obama, Westboro Baptist Church, Jay Nixon

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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