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Context of '1997: Anti-Gay Church Launches Hate Web Site'

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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

1997: Anti-Gay Church Launches Hate Web Site

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]

Entity Tags: Westboro Baptist Church

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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. [Casper Tribune, 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]

Entity Tags: Matthew Shepard, Westboro Baptist Church, Barb Watters, Fred Waldron Phelps, Paul Bertoglio

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

The anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) issues a press release praising the loss of life resulting from the Sichuan earthquake that killed at least 68,000 Chinese. The WBC refers to the Chinese people as “slant-eyed b_stards,” and says that it praises God for the “Great Killer Earthquake that He sent to kill thousands of stiffhearted Chinese rebels against God.” According to the press release, WBC members are praying for “many more earthquakes to kill many more thousands of impudent and ungrateful Chinese.… God hates China.” Shanghai journalist Kenneth Tan writes in response: “Vile, vile words that could only have come from the pits of hell, and the devil himself. These guys know not who it is they are worshipping. Their words would all be very funny if their hatred were not so real.” [Shanghaiist, 5/16/2008; New York Times, 5/7/2009] In another response, Michael Standaert, a Western journalist living in China, challenges Chinese computer hackers to “take down” the WBC Web site (see 1997). [Huffington Post, 5/14/2008]

Entity Tags: Westboro Baptist Church, Michael Standaert, Kenneth Tan

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Two members of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) debate Professor Jose Gabilondo on Amendment 2, a Florida Constitutional referendum, which, if passed, would ban same-sex marriages. The two WBC members are Shirley Phelps-Roper (see October 2-3, 2006) and Margie Phelps, accompanied by Shirley’s daughter, Megan. Phelps-Roper has become the church’s most prominent member now that church founder Fred Phelps, 79, has apparently succumbed to age and declining health, and no longer plays as prominent a role in church affairs. The debate occurs at Gabilondo’s school, Florida International University, where he is the faculty adviser to a gay group at FIU’s Colege of Law. When Gabilondo registered his dismay at the invitation, one alumnus suggested that he suffered from a “lack of testicular fortitude.”
Controversy over Invitation of WBC - Amendment 2 supporters complained that the two WBC members were invited in order to cast Amendment 2 in the worst possible light. Faith2Action leader Janet Folger says of the decision to invite WBC: “That’s the most heinous thing I’ve ever heard. They go to the most radical group. It’s a deliberate attempt to make the pro-marriage people appear to be something they’re not.” Another supporter accuses Gabilondo of trying to set up an unfair confrontation between himself and “some mentally inbred misfits from Kansas.” And a local newspaper columnist called the WBC “a bottom-feeding group,” and said the pro-amendment case should be made by someone else. However, Gabilondo said more mainstream proponents declined to attend the debate, and, moreover, he “think[s] it’s a mistake to distinguish between respectable homophobia and unacceptable homophobia.”
The Debate - On the morning of the debate, the WBC Web site (see 1997) declares that its two members would engage FIU’s “feces eaters” in debate. Two police officers are on hand at the event, and debate organizers warn the audience of some 50 members to refrain from clapping or booing during the discussion, and Gabilondo says privately that he will cut the event short if it becomes rowdy. He tells the WBC representatives that he supports their freedom of speech and appreciates their candor. “He’s a friendly fellow and a likeable fellow,” Margie Phelps later says, but that does not staunch their rhetoric. During the debate, Phelps admonishes the audience to follow the Bible’s teaching of being fruitful and multiplying. “It doesn’t matter how long you anally copulate, you will not bear children,” she says. Children of divorced parents or who have gay parents “would have been better off stillborn,” she adds. While she speaks, her sister displays photographs of drag queens, gay pride parades, death, and devastation. “You embrace fags, which God calls abomination,” Phelps-Roper says. “You teach your children to be whores. Now you sprint to your destruction.” After the discussion, the two sisters pose with Gabilondo for photographs. Phelps-Roper insists that she does not hate homosexuals, saying: “The standard of loving your neighbor is warning them their behavior can send them to hell. It’s only a kindness to tell them… they’re going to hell.” [Orlando Sun-Sentinel, 10/16/2008; Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2009]

Entity Tags: Shirley Phelps-Roper, Florida International University, Fred Waldron Phelps, Margie Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church, Jose Gabilondo

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

WBC leader Megan Phelps-Roper displays a sign outside the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC. Counter-protesters can be seen behind her.WBC leader Megan Phelps-Roper displays a sign outside the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC. Counter-protesters can be seen behind her. [Source: Think Progress]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), holds a protest outside the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, which is attended by President Obama’s daughter Malia. The WBC Web site (see 1997) labels Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, “satanic spawn” of a “murderous b_stard.” The WBC protesters also picket the White House, the World War II memorial, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission field office, along with a number of other schools. The WBC also intends to protest outside the Bethesda campus of Sidwell Friends, where Sasha Obama attends. [Huffington Post, 11/9/2009] MSNBC host David Shuster posts on Twitter after the Washington protest: “Hopefully, some of the more rational conservatives/republicans will condemn this stuff today. It was beyond the pale.” Sidwell students and faculty stage a counter-protest, holding a banner with the Quaker phrase, “There is that of God in everyone.” A school official says none of the protesters try to enter the school. [Think Progress, 11/9/2009]

Entity Tags: Sasha Obama, Barack Obama, Malia Obama, Sidwell Friends School, Westboro Baptist Church, David Shuster

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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