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Profile: Margie Phelps
Margie Phelps was a participant or observer in the following events:
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]
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 US Supreme Court finds in favor of the vehemently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After) in a court case brought by the father of a slain Marine whose funeral was disrupted by a WBC protest (see March 10, 2006 and After and October 2007). A court initially rendered an initial judgment of $5 million against the group for causing “excessive” pain and suffering to the family (see April 3, 2008), but an appeals court overturned that verdict (see March 2010). Snyder appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that as a private citizen and not a public figure, he had an expectation of privacy that the WBC violated. “The [WBC protesters’] freedom of speech should have ended where it conflicted with Mr. Snyder’s freedom to participate in his son’s funeral, which was intended to be a solemn religious gathering,” Snyder’s lawyers argued before the Court. For their side, WBC lawyers, including church member Margie Phelps, argued that Snyder was indeed something of a public figure because he spoke to reporters after his son’s death and after the funeral, including giving quotes to reporters that excoriated the WBC. Additionally, the WBC denied interfering with or disrupting the funeral, and said that it was “well within the bounds of the law” when it picketed the funeral and used speech that was “hyperbolic, figurative, and hysterical.” The WBC pickets funerals, its lawyers argued, “to use an available public platform when the living contemplate death, to deliver the message that there is a consequence for sin.… It was about publicly-funded funerals of publicly-funded soldiers dying in an extremely public war because of very public policies of sin, including homosexuality, divorce, remarriage, and Roman Catholic priests molesting children.… The fact the speech was hyperbolic, figurative, and hysterical is why it should be protected. [It is] the essence of the kind of robust speech on critical public issues for which the First Amendment was written.” The Court rules 8-1 in favor of the WBC, saying that the group’s First Amendment rights protect it in debating public issues. Only Justice Samuel Alito dissents. The Court also notes that the WBC obeyed directions from local officials, kept a distance from the church where the Snyder funeral was held, and did not directly disrupt the funeral service. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts finds: “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” Many critics celebrate the reversal, saying that while the WBC’s actions were reprehensible, the original trial verdict, which found grounds for cause under the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, could be used to suppress freedom of expression in a number of other venues. [Topeka Capital-Journal, 10/2/2010; Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/2/2011; Anti-Defamation League, 2012; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Opponents of the WBC say they are relieved that the ruling does not impact laws designed to protect grieving families from the church’s protests at funerals (see January 11, 2011). Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt criticizes the Court’s ruling, saying: “Today’s decision is a disappointment for Kansans who have endured for so long the embarrassment brought upon our state by the shameful conduct of the Westboro Baptist Church. Our hearts go out to the Snyder family whose pain and distress were at issue in this case.” [Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/2/2011] Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, says the ruling is more positive than negative: “Our highest court has reinforced the belief that our individual rights to free speech and assembly are so critical that we all must be willing to tolerate even that which the majority might find abhorrent.… It doesn’t say that what the Phelps family does or says is right. It simply says that in the United States, it is protected speech. When we start regulating speech, we’re headed down a very slippery slope. The Supreme Court is to be commended for refusing to take that route.” Snyder says the ruling shows that “eight justices don’t have the sense God gave a goat.” [Topeka Capital-Journal, 3/2/2011]
Margie Phelps, a leader of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC—see November 27, 1955 and After), posts abusive comments to the parents of a Birmingham, England, boy who died from an inoperable brain tumor hours earlier. Eleven-year-old Harry Moseley had raised some £500,000 in donations during the last months of his life. Phelps posts three comments on Twitter berating Moseley and his family. One reads: “No #RIPHarry for Harry Moseley. Hating parents made him an idol; now you raise $$ on his dead body! #shame #nooneisinnocent.” Another strikes out at prominent area football (soccer) players who had supported Harry’s quest to raise money for charity before his death. Phelps says the “emotional tributes” of the over 70,000 messages of love and condolence sent to the Moseley family on Twitter were “phony” and the posters “[s]hould’ve told Harry Moseley to obey God!” Finally, she posts: “What Harry Moseley needed more than cancer treatment was the TRUTH about God, Heaven & Hell. He didn’t get that. Now it’s too late.” Moseley’s mother Georgie Moseley calls Phelps’s comments “vile,” and adds, “I am very, very angry that someone can say that about an 11-year-old boy who has just died.” [Birmingham Mail, 10/10/2011]
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