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Context of 'June 1991 and After: Anti-Gay Church Begins ‘Picketing Ministry’'

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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

Signs held by a WBC picketer at the funeral of a fallen soldier.Signs held by a WBC picketer at the funeral of a fallen soldier. [Source: Eagle I Online (.com)]The virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas (see November 27, 1955 and After) begins what it calls its “picketing ministry,” holding controversial protests to raise awareness of the church and gain media attention. The first protest is held at Gage Park, a Topeka park that the WBC claims is a “meeting place” for homosexuals. The protests continue well into 2001. In 2012, the church will claim to have held over 40,000 protests. WBC members attend these protests bearing signs with such slogans as “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates Jews,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Thank God for IEDs” [improvised explosive devices], and “Thank God for AIDS.” Protesters often shout vulgar and obscene epithets at mourners. The church protests many local businesses and individuals in Topeka, including picketing one restaurant every day for three years because the owner knowingly hired a lesbian employee. Jerry Berger, the owner of the restaurant, will later say that church leader Fred Phelps promises to “put you out of business” if he does not fire the employee. When Berger refuses, Phelps and the WBC hound him and the restaurant for three years until he sells the restaurant and the employee quits. Phelps and the WBC find the woman in her new job and protest her there, also. The WBC also continues to protest at the restaurant. At least one member, Shirley Phelps-Roper, often brings American flags to protests and allows her children to trample the flags during those protests, engendering even more media attention. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001; Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012; Anti-Defamation League, 2012] The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) will later write that it believes the group’s overriding purpose is to garner publicity for itself. “Every mention of WBC in the media is considered a victory by the group,” it will observe. [Anti-Defamation League, 2012]

Entity Tags: Westboro Baptist Church, Anti-Defamation League, Fred Waldron Phelps, Jerry Berger, Shirley Phelps-Roper

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Members of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) of Topeka, Kansas, are charged with eight counts of criminal defamation and other charges by Shawnee County District Attorney Joan Hamilton, charges stemming from a number of what Hamilton says are abuses and crimes committed during protests held by WBC members (see June 1991 and After). WBC leader Fred Phelps, himself a lawyer (see 1985-1989), responds by filing three lawsuits against Hamilton alleging wrongful prosecution. A court invalidates the state defamation statute, blocks further prosecution of the WBC members in the cases, and awards the church $43,000 in legal fees. Years later, an appeals court will reinstate the defamation statute, but the statute of limitations will preclude most of the charges from being refiled. All of Phelps’s lawsuits against Hamilton will eventually be thrown out of court. A second set of defamation charges filed by Hamilton in 1996 will be dropped for technical reasons. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001] The church takes revenge against Hamilton in a more personal way, somehow securing a copy of a private email from her to her husband discussing both of their extramarital affairs and making the email public. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001]

Entity Tags: Fred Waldron Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church, Joan Hamilton

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Benjamin Phelps, the grandson of Fred Phelps, the leader of the notoriously anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After), spits on a passerby during a protest by the church (see June 1991 and After). Benjamin Phelps is convicted of a charge of misdemeanor battery. Other WBC members found innocent in two similar cases file lawsuits against the original complainants. Another Phelps family member, Jonathan Phelps, is convicted of disorderly conduct after verbally assaulting passersby at another protest; he stood outside a theater waving a sign proclaiming “Fags: The pr_ck goes up the _ss” and screaming at passing children, “Did your daddy stick his pr_ck up your _ss last night?” His original conviction is overturned due to a legal technicality, but he is convicted in a second trial. Fred Phelps is also convicted of disorderly conduct in related incidents, when he spoke in an abusive manner to members of a birthday party hosted by local attorney John Hamilton. All of the incidents occurred outside a local restaurant in Topeka, Kansas (see March 26, 1993). Benjamin Phelps is given 12 months of probation and is required to write an essay about legally acceptable language. Fred Phelps is fined $1,000 and sentenced to 60 days in jail, but the sentences are suspended. All of the Phelpses unsuccessfully claim that they were victimized by selective prosecution and by judicial bias. [Topeka Capital-Journal, 5/24/1997; Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001; Global Oneness, 2011]

Entity Tags: John Hamilton, Benjamin Phelps, Fred Waldron Phelps, Jonathan Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Charles Hockenbarger, a member of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) of Topeka, Kansas, is convicted of battery and criminal restraint after assaulting a Lutheran minister at a WBC protest outside the First Lutheran Church of Topeka in September 1993 (see June 1991 and After). The minister, Reverend W. Gerald Weeks, was counter-protesting against the WBC, and held a sign reading, “God’s Love Speaks Loudest.” [Associated Press, 2/21/1998; Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001; Global Oneness, 2011] Hockenbarger is sentenced to five days in jail. He will appeal the conviction, claiming to be the victim of selective prosecution and a failure to receive a timely trial, but the Kansas State Court of Appeals will deny his appeal. [Associated Press, 2/21/1998]

Entity Tags: W. Gerald Weeks, Charles Hockenbarger, Kansas State Court of Appeals, Westboro Baptist Church

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Conservative Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell, who speaks out against the anti-gay rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church.Conservative Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell, who speaks out against the anti-gay rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church. [Source: New York Times]People from the left and right of the social and political spectrum join in condemning the actions of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) during its protest at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was beaten to death a month earlier (see October 9, 1998 and After and October 14, 1998). The Reverend Jerry Falwell, a far-right Christian evangelist, says of the WBC’s protest, “I found it almost impossible to believe that human beings could be so brutal and vicious to a hurting family.” Of the WBC’s leader, Fred Phelps, he says, “He’s a first-class nut.” Phelps says he is proud to be labeled as such by Falwell because “[i]t means I’m preaching the truth.” Phelps then labels Falwell a “Judas” and says WBC members will picket Falwell’s church in Lynchburg, Virginia. Robert H. Knight of the conservative Family Research Council says he asked Phelps to call off the church’s protests against gays (see June 1991 and After) a year ago, and says he told Phelps that his actions “misconstrue… the message of Christ, which was one of love.” Arne Owens of the Christian Coalition says that anti-gay Christian organizations oppose the homosexual lifestyle while loving gays and lesbians: “You must be loving toward all human beings while recognizing the role of sin in the world.” But Cathy Renna of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) says that Phelps only expresses the hatred other anti-gay groups feel but do not so bluntly demonstrate. The Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative lobbying group, joins the Christian Coalition and other anti-gay organization in accusing GLAAD and other gay rights groups of capitalizing on Shepard’s murder for their own purposes, a charge Renna calls ludicrous. She says that Shepard’s friends “told me that Matthew would have wanted something good to come out of this. If [a murder] energizes and makes us fight to educate people about the kind of violence lesbians and gays face every day, that’s not using Matthew.” Instead, she says, groups like the Christian Coalition are using Phelps to promote their agenda: “They can point to him and say: ‘He’s a bad guy. We’re compassionate.’” For his part, Phelps says his organization brought “a little sanity” to Shepard’s funeral, and claims it was “the homosexuals” who “turned it into a Cecil B. DeMille propaganda mill.” [Associated Press, 11/24/1998]

Entity Tags: Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation, Cathy Renna, Arne Owens, Christian Coalition, Fred Waldron Phelps, Jerry Falwell, Matthew Shepard, Westboro Baptist Church, Robert H. Knight, Traditional Values Coalition, Family Research Council

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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