|Rev. Fred Phelps|
A publicity-hungry group
The primary goal of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), led by Fred Phelps, appears to be garnering publicity for itself and its message. For this reason, the group directs its efforts at events that have attracted heavy news coverage, like the deaths of soldiers killed in wars or the victims of well-publicized accidents, or at venues, such as high schools, which are likely to generate large counter-protests and community outrage. Many of its protests are held in response to events that have generated at least local media coverage, as in an April 2009 protest of the staging of the musical “Rent” at a high school in Newport Beach, California, which had been the subject of local controversy. The group also announces plans to picket at locations abroad (many in locations WBC is not likely to be to travel to, such as Sri Lanka, or cannot travel to, such as Great Britain, where the government has formally banned members of the group from entering) in the hopes of generating foreign press coverage.
|Shirley Phelps Roper|
In a telling comment, after Shirley Phelps-Roper, a leader of the WBC, had screened a documentary about the group in her home prior to its debut on Showtime in December 2007, she said, “The content was good. Anytime we get the word out there that we are a doomed country - a doomed generation it's a good thing.” Every mention of WBC in the media is considered a victory by the group.
Fred Phelps DisbarredTrained as a lawyer, Fred Phelps, the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, was disbarred in 1979 by the Kansas Supreme Court, which asserted that he had “little regard for the ethics of his profession.” The formal complaint against Phelps charged that he misrepresented the truth in a motion for a new trial in a case he had brought, and that he held the defendant in the case up to “unnecessary public ridicule for which there is no basis in fact.” Following his disbarment from Kansas State courts, Phelps continued to practice law in Federal courts. In 1985, nine Federal court judges filed a disciplinary complaint charging him and six of his family members, all attorneys, with making false accusations against them. The Phelps family fought the complaint but lost and, in 1989, Fred Phelps agreed to not practice law in Federal court in exchange for the Federal judges allowing the other members of his family to continue practicing in Federal court.
Pickets inspire legislation and legal actionSince 2005, at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) members carry placards with sayings like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Thank God for IEDs [improvised explosive devices]” while shouting epithets at mourners.
The group quickly gained national media attention for the practice and, to date, 41 states and the federal government have enacted legislation that attempts to limit it. The constitutionality of these laws, on both freedom of speech and freedom of religion grounds, has been challenged in four states, with mixed results. In March 2007, a federal court in Ohio upheld, with slight revisions, that state’s anti-funeral picketing law. However, in December of that year WBC won a preliminary injunction prohibiting the state of Missouri from enforcing its law. In June 2009, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear Missouri’s appeal of the preliminary injunction.
In addition, in October 2007, a federal jury in Baltimore, Maryland, found members of the WBC guilty of violating a right to privacy and intentionally inflicting emotional distress against the family of Matthew Snyder, a Marine who was killed in Iraq in 2006. Snyder’s father, Albert, was the first individual to attempt such a lawsuit against the group and this was the first time the church had been held liable for its military funeral protests.
The jury initially ordered the WBC to pay nearly $11 million in damages, a sum members claimed was many times more than WBC’s net assets. In February 2008, a federal judge in Baltimore reduced the amount of the damages to $5 million, finding that the original punitive damages were excessive. In September 2009, a federal appeals court threw out the verdict entirely. It ruled that even though the group held up “utterly distasteful” signs at Snyder’s funeral, the signs commented on issues of “public concern” and were therefore constitutionally protected speech. In early October 2010, the Supreme Court heard Snyder’s appeal to determine whether the appeals court erred in overturning the jury’s award of damages.
On March 2, 2011 the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the WBC, stressing that the group was protected by the First Amendment and its free speech rights to debate public issues. The Court also noted that the WBC had obeyed directions from local officials, maintained a distance from the church where the Snyder funeral was held, and did not disrupt the funeral service.
|Meghan Phelps Roper|
In July 2010, Megan Phelps-Roper, Shirley’s daughter, filed a federal lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of Nebraska’s flag desecration law, saying that the law infringed on her freedom of speech. Two months later, in September, a federal judge overturned the Nebraska law. The judge said that the law could not be applied if Megan Phelps-Roper and other members of the WBC “otherwise acted peacefully while desecrating the American or Nebraska flag during their religiously motivated protests.” In addition, the judge ordered Nebraska state officials to pay $8,000 in attorney’s fees to Megan Phelps-Roper.
About WBCThe Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is a small virulently homophobic, anti-Semitic hate group that regularly stages protests around the country, often several times a week. The group pickets institutions and individuals they think support homosexuality or otherwise subvert what they believe is God’s law.
Incorporated in 1967 as a not-for-profit organization, WBC considers itself an “Old School (or Primitive)” Baptist Church. WBC’s leader is Fred Phelps and several of his children and dozens of his grandchildren appear to constitute the majority of the group’s members. WBC has no official affiliation with mainstream Baptist organizations.
While WBC members have protested at Jewish institutions over the years, such institutions were not a major focus for the group until April 2009. Since then, WBC has targeted dozens of Jewish institutions around the country, from Israeli consulates to synagogues to Jewish community centers, distributing anti-Semitic fliers to announce planned protests at these sites. WBC has also been sending volumes (in some cases dozens over the course of a week) of faxes and emails with anti-Semitic and anti-gay messages to various Jewish institutions and individuals.
In addition, in April 2010, the group began mailing a virulently anti-Semitic DVD to Jewish organizations and leaders. The DVD also attacks President Obama, describing him as the anti-Christ, and is filled with anti-gay and anti-Catholic vitriol.
Other WBC targets include schools the group deems to be accepting of homosexuality; Catholic, Lutheran, and other Christian denominations that WBC feels are heretical; and funerals for people murdered or killed in accidents like plane crashes and for American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, a tactic the group started in 2005. 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.
Additionally, the group has tried to stage protests in foreign countries. In February 2009, the WBC announced plans to travel to Great Britain to protest the staging at a school there of “The Laramie Project,” a play about the vicious murder of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, in 1998. (British government officials barred the group from entering the country.) The group made it to Canada in August 2008, where they picketed the funeral of a young man who was the victim of a brutal murder on a Greyhound bus, which was national news in that country. Authorities there reportedly tried to prevent the group from entering their country, but the WBC claims it was able to evade Canadian border patrol agents to stage the protest.