!! History Commons Alert, Exciting News
Profile: Fred Waldron Phelps
a.k.a. Fred Phelps Sr.
Fred Waldron Phelps was a participant or observer in the following events:
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]
Nine federal judges in Kansas sign a disciplinary complaint against Reverend Fred Phelps, the head of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas (see November 27, 1955 and After). Phelps, as are many of his children and in-laws, is a lawyer. The judges add five of his children and a daughter-in-law to the complaint. The complaint alleges that the seven Phelps family members made false accusations against the judges. In 1987, Phelps’s position is weakened when he is censured for writing abusive letters to potential defendants threatening lawsuits if his demands are not met. In 1989, Phelps agrees to stop practicing law entirely in federal court, in return for his family members’ continuing privilege to practice law in those courts. His daughter Margie Phelps is suspended for practicing law in federal and state courts for one year, and his son Fred Phelps Jr. is suspended from those courts for six months. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001]
An unusual relationship forms between the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas (see November 27, 1955 and After), and the political organization of Senator Al Gore (D-TN). In 1988, WBC head Fred Phelps provides rooms in his compound for Gore’s presidential campaign workers. In 1993, Phelps’s oldest son Fred Phelps Jr. is invited to the first Clinton-Gore inauguration. But by 1998, Gore is seen as such an enemy by the WBC that its members picket the funeral of his father. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001] In 2000, Phelps Senior will say that the relationship between himself and Gore is “not what it used to be,” but he will say that he still receives Christmas cards from Gore. Phelps will attempt to explain the relationship between Gore and the WBC, saying: “He was strong pro-life, and he said he wasn’t going to accept any money from homosexual groups, and things of that nature. But there’s no question in my mind that approximately in the late 1980s or the early 1990s he made a conscious decision that he wanted to be a successful national candidate, and he sold out on some of those critical social issues, because that’s what he had to do to succeed nationally in the Democratic Party.” [Topeka Capital-Journal, 11/4/2000]
Lawyer and ordained minister Fred Phelps, the leader of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas (see November 27, 1955 and After), runs for governor of Kansas as a Democrat. He disseminates flyers attacking other gubernatorial candidates, as well as other state politicians, in what the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) will call “unusually personal terms.” He loses in the primary, winning 6.7 percent of the votes cast. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001]
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]
Lawyer and ordained minister Fred Phelps, the leader of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas (see November 27, 1955 and After), runs for the US Senate. Though he calls his opponent a “bull dike” (a missppelled accusation that his opponent is a lesbian), Phelps wins almost 31 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001] Phelps ran for governor of Kansas in 1990, and won less than seven percent of the Democratic primary vote (see 1990).
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]
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]
The virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas (see November 27, 1955 and After), which conducts what it calls its “picketing ministry” against churches, businesses, organizations, and individuals it does not like (see June 1991 and After), defames the rabbi of a Topeka synagogue at which it is protesting. In a press release, the WBC’s Fred Phelps says: “Rabbi Lawrence Karol is an apostate Jew who denies the faith of his fathers, militantly promotes the anal-copulating agenda of Topeka’s filthy fag community, and persecutes the Lord’s people just as his vermin ancestors did in killing the Lord Jesus Christ and their own prophets and persecuting the apo[s]tles of Christ. Hence they live filthy lives of sexual perversion, greed, violence, and oppression of the Lord’s people. This is why the vile Jews of Temple Beth Sholom promote sodomy and persecute Baptists.” [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012]
Topeka, Kansas, police chief Gerald Beavers resigns after a public outcry over his alleged “coddling” of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) and its pastor, Fred Phelps. The public is not pleased to learn that Beavers has issued a no-arrest order on the church’s behalf. Beavers is replaced by Dean Forster, who previously won a lawsuit filed against him by Phelps. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001] Beavers is found to have assigned police details to the protesters to protect WBC members, and had repeatedly refused to pursue charges against WBC protesters who verbally or even physically assaulted passersby. However, within months, Forster will promise to never publicly mention Phelps or the WBC after weathering a blizzard of lawsuits and court complaints filed against him by the church. In 2001, Topeka Mayor Joan Wagnon will say: “They have used their constitutional rights to bully this town into submission.… Topeka is now identified with Fred Phelps. If someone could figure out how to get him off the streets, they could be elected mayor for life.” [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001]
Darrell Lewis, the head of the planning department for Duluth, Minnesota, turns down an offer to serve as the director of the Topeka-Shawnee County Metropolitan Planning Agency because of what he calls the “atmosphere of oppression” in Topeka, Kansas. Lewis specifically cites the efforts of the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After), which loudly condemns homosexuality and other practices with which it disagrees. “Because of the public nature of the job, I think I would become a target of Fred Phelps,” he says, referring to the pastor of the WBC. “I can’t subject my children to that.” Lewis is openly gay, though he says he is quiet about his sexual orientation and denies being a “gay activist.” Lewis says he was ready to take the job until December 8, 1997, when he saw a Phelps protest during a visit to Topeka. He is also concerned with the city’s failure to pass an anti-discrimination law based on sexual orientation. “Frankly, in Minnesota it [homosexuality] is not much of an issue,” Lewis says. Phelps says if his church helped persuade Lewis not to come to Topeka, then he and his church have done the city a public service. The church is serving a larger purpose, he says, by helping persuade homosexuals not to come to Topeka. Gays “can’t think straight about anything,” Phelps says, and should not be allowed in important positions. Shawnee County Commission chairman Ted Ensley says he is stunned by Lewis’s decision. He did not know about Lewis’s sexual orientation and says it would not have been an issue in deciding whether to offer Lewis the position. Topeka Mayor Joan Wagnon agrees with Ensley, saying: “It just doesn’t make any difference to me. His ideas and his credentials were wonderful. I don’t think his sexual orientation is anybody’s business but his own.” However, Commissioner Mike Meier says he is glad Lewis has decided not to take the position. Meier says he is opposed to homosexuality, and notes, “I’m not Fred Phelps, but I’m pretty damn straight.” [Topeka Capital-Journal, 12/14/1997; Topeka Capital-Journal, 12/14/1997] The WBC will stage protests in Duluth in response to Lewis’s decision. [Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/23/1998]
Anti-gay activist Fred Phelps, pastor of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas (see November 27, 1955 and After), announces his candidacy for governor. Phelps intends to run as a Democrat. Phelps ran for governor of Kansas in 1990 and won less than seven percent of the Democratic primary vote (see 1990). In 1992, he ran for Senate, again unsuccessfully, and used anti-gay slurs against his opponent (see 1992). He has also run unsuccessfully for mayor of Topeka. Phelps says Governor Bill Graves (R-KS) is wrong for allowing thousands of tax dollars to be wasted at state universities on “seminars taught by militant homosexual activists spreading gay propaganda.” Phelps says, “As governor, I would promptly close down all illegal gay and lesbian activity in Kansas, beginning with the regents schools.” He says he would eliminate all property taxes and close Washburn University’s School of Law. Aside from being a minister, Phelps is a disbarred lawyer. [Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/26/1998] Phelps is given little chance of winning the Democratic primary against challenger Tom Sawyer, a longtime member of the Kansas House of Representatives. [Associated Press, 7/20/1998] Sawyer will indeed defeat Phelps in the Democratic primary, and lose to Graves in the general election. [Kansas Secretary of State, 12/1/1998]
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).
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
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]
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]
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]
Fred Phelps, the pastor of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After), posts a video entitled “9/11: God’s Wrath Revealed” on YouTube. During the video, Phelps tells his viewers: “Thank God for 9/11. Thank God that, five years ago, the wrath of God was poured out upon this evil nation. America, land of the sodomite damned.… We told you, right after it happened five years ago, that the deadly events of 9/11 were direct outpourings of divine retribution, the immediate visitation of God’s wrath and vengeance and punishment for America’s horrendous sodomite sins, that worse and more of it was on the way. We further told you that any politician, any political official, any preacher telling you differently as to the cause and interpretation of 9/11 is a dastardly lying false prophet, cowardly and mean, and headed for hell. And taking you with him! God is no longer with America, but is now America’s enemy. God himself is now America’s terrorist.” [Westboro Baptist Church, 9/8/2006; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] In an earlier Web posting about the 9/11 attacks, Phelps had this to say about the attacks and one of the American Airlines pilots who died in the attacks: “The Rod of God hath smitten fag America!… At left is the filthy face of fag evil. [Hijacked American Airlines pilot] David Charlebois. One of the hundreds of fags and dykes and fag-/dyke-enablers working for American Airlines.… If the fags have a secret funeral for David Charlebois—in order to frustrate WBC’s plan to picket his funeral—WBC will picket his house.… The multitudes slain Sept. 11, 2001, are in Hell—forever!” [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 Canada to protest at the funeral of a man murdered on a Greyhound bus in that nation. In response, Canada bars WBC members from entering the country. The funeral will proceed without incident. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] The WBC later claims to have evaded Canadian border patrol officials and successfully staged its protest. [Anti-Defamation League, 2012] WBC’s attempts to picket in Canada will result in Canada’s first hate-crime law, known informally as the “Fred Phelps Law.” [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012]
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]
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]
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]
Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database
Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.