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Context of 'October 3, 2003: Church Tries to ‘Memorialize’ Murdered Gay Student with Monumument Mocking, Vilifying Him'

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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)

The virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) puts up its first Web site. It is mostly devoted to defaming and besmirching homosexuals. The site will become the well-known “God Hates Fags” site. (Southern Poverty Law Center 4/2001)

Matthew Shepard.Matthew Shepard. [Source: BilEric Project]Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student, is murdered on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard, who is openly gay, is found brutally beaten, burned, and tied to a fence, where he hung, comatose, for some 18 hours before being found. He is rushed to a local hospital, but dies five days later. Local residents Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson are quickly charged with Shepard’s death. Because of the extreme brutalization they inflicted on Shepard, prosecutors chararcterize the murder as a hate crime: according to the charges, the two killed Shepard because of their hatred of homosexuals. (Brooke 10/10/1998; ABC News 11/26/2004) The girlfriends of the two accused murderers are also arrested and charged as accomplices after the fact, but the charges are mitigated after they cooperate with the investigation. (Brooke 10/10/1998) Investigators quickly learn that Shepard had been beaten twice in recent months by other Laramie residents who, he said, attacked him because of his homosexuality. (CNN 10/12/1998) “He was very open about his sexuality,” says a friend, anthropology student Tina LaBrie. “I admired him for that because it is very courageous to be yourself even when others disagree.” (Brooke 10/10/1998)
Fatal Truck Ride - Henderson and McKinney approach Shepard at a bar with the intention of robbing him. According to the two, Shepard, unaware of their plans, tells them he is too drunk to drive and asks for a ride. In some versions of the events, McKinney and Henderson represent themselves as gay in order to entice Shepard into the truck. The three climb into McKinney’s pickup; Henderson drives. McKinney will claim that at some point during the ride Shepard places his hand on McKinney’s leg. It is then that McKinney strikes Shepard with a .357 Magnum pistol. However, McKinney later says, “I was getting ready to pull it on him anyway.” (In 1999, Henderson will admit that McKinney lied about the sexual advance from Shepard, and say that Shepard never touched either man. And tapes of McKinney’s post-arrest confession bear out Henderson’s denial.) McKinney tells Shepard: “Guess what? I’m not gay—and you just got jacked.” McKinney forces Shepard to give him his wallet, which only has $30 in it. McKinney continues pistol-whipping Shepard; prosecutors will say that McKinney continues beating Shepard because of his hatred for gays, but McKinney will later claim he loses control of himself because he is high on methamphetamine, saying: “Sometimes when you have that kind of rage going through you, there’s no stopping it. I’ve attacked my best friends coming off of meth binges.” McKinney and Henderson drive to a secluded spot outside Laramie where they can dump Shepard and flee. They stop at a wooden fence, where Henderson ties Shepard to the fence with a length of rope while McKinney continues to beat Shepard. Henderson later claims McKinney strikes him in the face when he tries to stop McKinney from continuing to assault Shepard. After tying Shepard to the fence, Henderson returns to the truck, leaving McKinney alone with Shepard. McKinney later says he believes it is his final blows to Shepard that ultimately kill him. (Leavitt 10/18/1998; Cullen 11/6/1999; ABC News 11/26/2004) Sergeant Rob DeBree, the chief investigator in the case, will later say, “That is one thousand percent torture, what occurred to that boy.” (Cullen 11/6/1999)
Altercation in Parking Lot Alerts Police to Murder - McKinney takes Shepard’s wallet and shoes, gets back in the truck, and tells Henderson to return to Laramie. McKinney later says his intention was to burglarize Shepard’s apartment. However, McKinney and Henderson meet up with two other young men whom police say are vandalizing cars; McKinney attacks the two men, attracting police attention. Police Sergeant Flint Waters runs down Henderson; after apprehending him, he sees several incriminating items in the bed of Henderson’s truck, including a bloodied large-frame revolver, a coat, a shoe, and a length of rope. Waters later says, “Seeing that the gun covered in blood, I assumed that there was a lot more going on than what we’d stumbled onto so far.” (ABC News 11/26/2004) The two assailants’ girlfriends attempt to cover for them, inventing an alibi for them and throwing Henderson’s bloodied clothing into a trash bin. McKinney’s girlfriend, Kristen Price, says of Henderson after the murder: “He was crying, and he kept throwing up. He just came in and hugged me, and said, ‘I’ve done something horrible. I deserve to die.’” (Brooke 10/16/1998)
Discovery - Aaron Kreifels, a fellow University of Wyoming student, finds Shepard by chance after struggling to get his mountain bike through the sandy, rugged terrain. He later tells a Denver Post reporter: “I got up and noticed something out of the corner of my eye. At first I thought it was a scarecrow, so I didn’t think much of it. Then I went around and noticed it was a real person. I checked to see if he was conscious or not, and when I found out he wasn’t, I ran and got help as fast as I could.” Kreifels reaches a house in the nearby Sherman Hills subdivision and calls police. As to Shepard’s condition, he will say, “I don’t really want to go into details about that.” Of the two assailants, Kreifels will say: “I can’t even grasp what these people were thinking, how they could do such a thing. There’s no excuse for it. Whatever their excuse is, it’s meaningless, because there’s just no excuse for taking another’s life.” (Hughes 10/15/1988) McKinney’s girlfriend briefly attempts to blame Shepard for the attack, claiming Shepard had made a pass at her boyfriend in recent days, and embarrassed him in front of his friends. (Brooke 10/12/1998)
Father of Assailant: Gay Victim Caused Increased Media Coverage - The father of one of the assailants, Bill McKinney, condemns the attack, but also complains about the attention Shepard’s murder receives in the media. The national press “blew it totally out of proportion because it involved a homosexual,” McKinney tells a Denver reporter. “Had this been a heterosexual these two boys decided to take out and rob, this never would have made the national news.” (Brooke 10/12/1998)
Funeral - Anti-gay protesters will picket Shepard’s funeral, displaying signs such as “God Hates Fags” and “Matt Shepard Rots in Hell” (see October 14, 1998).
Hate Crime - The question of whether Shepard’s murder qualifies as a “hate crime” is hotly debated in the weeks following the murder (see October 9, 1998 and After).
Multiple Life Sentences - McKinney and Henderson are found guilty of murder, kidnapping, and, in McKinney’s case, aggravated robbery. They accept double life sentences, in a plea deal agreed to by Shepard’s family, in order to escape the possibility of a death sentence. They waive their right to appeal as part of their plea deal. “Bottom line, Aaron was afraid he was going to die,” DeBree later says. (Cullen 11/5/1999; Cullen 11/6/1999; ABC News 11/26/2004) Dennis Shepard, the father of the victim, speaks for the family in court. “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney,” he says. “However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. To use this as the first step in my own closure about losing Matt.… Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life and may you thank Matthew every day for it.” (Cullen 11/5/1999)
Triggers Legislation - Shepard’s death will be a catalyst for the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (see October 28, 2009). Shepard’s mother will create a foundation in her son’s name dedicated to promoting tolerance and diversity. And Shepard’s story will be retold in documentaries, television movies, and a play called “The Laramie Project,” which will often be performed in schools to address the issues of hate and prejudice. (ABC News 11/26/2004)

The Reverend Fred Phelps, holding a sign outside Matthew Shepard’s funeral service.The Reverend Fred Phelps, holding a sign outside Matthew Shepard’s funeral service. [Source: Slate]The funeral for Matthew Shepard, a gay college student brutally murdered by three white supremacists (see October 9, 1998 and After), is held in St. Mark’s Church in Casper, Wyoming. The service is led by the Reverend Anne Kitch. (CNN 10/13/1998; Louie Crew 10/14/1998) The Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, leads a small delegation of church members in a raucous denunciation of homosexuality at Shepard’s funeral. Phelps and his congregation members have picketed the funerals of gay men for years across the country, holding “God Hates Fags” signs and harassing family members. Governor Jim Geringer (R-WY) says he cannot prevent Phelps from attending the funeral, but vows that the protesters will not be allowed to disrupt it. Phelps’s group, Geringer says, is “just flat not welcome. What we don’t need is a bunch of wing nuts coming in.” For his part, Phelps, who claims he has received multiple death threats after announcing his journey to Laramie, says: “We’re not going to tolerate any violence from these homosexuals. They are the most violent people in the world. Here they are talking about what happened to this poor boy, and they turn around and make death threats against us.” Geringer, the Casper City Council, and several groups of gay activists succeeded in passing a regulation that keeps Phelps and his protesters 50 feet away from church property during the funeral. “[I]t was the best we could accomplish without risking an immediate court injunction for violating constitutional free speech,” reads a statement by the local chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans. “Such an injunction might have allowed Phelps to walk right up to the church property line.” (CNN 10/13/1998; Log Cabin Republicans 10/16/1998) Phelps and his fellow church members picket the funeral with signs reading, “Matt Shepard Rots in Hell,” “AIDS Kills Fags Dead,” and “God Hates Fags.” (Fact-Index 2004) Five years later, Phelps will attempt to erect a marker emblazoned with inflammatory statements about Shepard in a local park, to “commemorate” his death (see October 3, 2003).

The Reverend Fred Phelps, minister of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, announces plans to erect a monument in the Casper, Wyoming, City Park to “commemorate” the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard five years ago (see October 9, 1998 and After). According to Phelps, the marker would bear a likeness to Shepard and read: “MATTHEW SHEPARD, Entered Hell October 12, 1998, in Defiance of God’s Warning: ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.’ Leviticus 18:22.” Few Casper City Council members support Phelps’s plans. Councilwoman Barb Watters says: “When Phelps puts on one side his picture with the thing about killing all the gays, and they put on the other side of the thing a picture of Hitler that says ‘Kill all the Jews.’ That is what you are opening yourself up for.” Councilman Paul Bertoglio notes: “I think the hate language will find a very cold reception in this community. I think this community’s backbone is going to come up and say, ‘We are not going to accept it.’” Of Shepard, Phelps says: “It all comes back to Casper, Wyoming. That is his home, that is where he was born, where that church is, where those institutions… conspired in a confluence of evil resulting in a Zeitgeist that is extraordinarily evil. He [Shepard] was not a hero. This is a great monster sin against God. It is not an innocent alternate lifestyle. And all that has come down in that one little evil town called Casper, Wyoming. And we can’t ignore that.” The city will not allow the monument to be erected. (Burke 10/3/2003) The WBC soon builds a virtual “monument” to Shepard on its Web site (see 1997), which depicts him burning in hell. A photo of Shepard is wreathed in animated flames, and mousing over the photograph triggers an audio response of recorded screams and a voice shouting, “For God’s sake, listen to Phelps!” A counter on the site displays how many days Shepard has “Been in Hell.” The site claims: “WBC does not support the murder of Matthew Shepard: ‘thou shalt not kill.’ Unless his killers repent, they will receive the same sentence that Matthew Shepard received—eternal fire. However, the truth about Matthew Shepard needs to be known. He lived a Satanic lifestyle. He got himself killed trolling for anonymous homosexual sex in a bar at midnight.” (Global Oneness 2011; Southern Poverty Law Center 2012)

The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), a small, virulently anti-gay organization in Topeka, Kansas, led by pastor Fred Phelps (see November 27, 1955 and After), announces its intention to travel to the United Kingdom to protest a performance of The Laramie Project, a highly respected play that documents the hate murder of gay student Matthew Shepard and how the incident impacted the Wyoming community (see October 14, 1998). The WBC protested at Shepard’s funeral, and tried unsuccessfully to raise a “monument” to Shepard vilifying him for being gay (see October 3, 2003). In response, the UK bans both Phelps and WBC church leader Shirley Phelps-Roper from entering its borders. (Southern Poverty Law Center 2012)


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