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Church's city wary, weary of Westboro

The Baltimore Sun

TOPEKA, Kan. -- In the quiet shadow of the state Capitol, Bill Duckworth stands just inside the Tool Shed Tap bar and lets out a long sigh.

He's a veteran and openly gay member of a community long unhappy about pickets by a virulently anti-homosexual religious group based here. But on this Saturday night, Duckworth says he's still wary about the biggest news in town: the $10.9 million judgment against the group, Westboro Baptist Church, in a Baltimore courtroom.

"I felt like it might have been offensive, but that's their right," the 55-year-old printing press worker says of the military funeral protest in Maryland that prompted a deceased Marine's father to sue Westboro. "That's what our military is fighting for. It's why our country was founded."

Just how to deal with Westboro - whose members believe God's wrath is killing soldiers because of America's tolerance of gays - remains an open question for this exhausted prairie city. For more than 15 years, civic leaders have tried to rein in Westboro's inflammatory picketing without violating constitutional rights.

They admit they've had little success.

Mayor William W. Bunten is so mortified by what he calls the "local Topeka hate group" that he sends out a warning letters to municipal leaders across the country who find themselves in Westboro's crosshairs. Church members responded by filing a freedom of information request to find out how much the letters cost to mail.

The local performing arts center director tries to reassure bookers who worry that their acts will be met with Westboro signs like "Thank God for dead soldiers." People still talk about the time more than a decade ago when poet Maya Angelou was so shaken by a Westboro protest in Topeka that she canceled other scheduled appearances in Kansas.

To its critics, Westboro is more a savvy cult of personality than organized religion. They say its acolytes carry signs with offending words and stick figures engaged in sexual acts because they want to attract the media spotlight.

Last month, jurors in U.S. District Court in Baltimore brushed aside Westboro's First Amendment defense, for the first time. They found that church members intentionally harmed the grieving family of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder by an anti-gay funeral demonstration in Westminster in March 2006 and by a subsequent Internet posting about his family background. Members plan to appeal.

Ever defiant, the 77-year-old founder, Fred W. Phelps Sr., and his family are basking in the attention despite the potentially devastating financial judgment against him, his two daughters and the church. "The picketing ministry ... is a divine work of infinite wisdom, knowledge," he thundered in his Sunday sermon last week, and accused the Baltimore jury of "demonic contempt" for his ministry.

Immediately after the verdict, the sign shop at Westboro had churned out a defiant placard for the protests that continue across the nation: "Thank God for $10.9 million."

Moral campaign

In the beginning, Fred Phelps wanted to become a military leader.

The Mississippi native secured admission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, his children say. But a revelatory revival he attended just before he was to enroll launched Phelps on a different path. He founded the self-described Primitive Baptist ministry on Calvinist principles more than 50 years ago.

Phelps' faith had always been intertwined with his job as a lawyer. He spent years filing civil rights lawsuits and claiming moral inspiration from the Kansas-based Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision by the Supreme Court. Critics say Phelps had substantial legal skills, but they also said that many of his lawsuits were seen as outrageous, failing altogether or ending with small settlements.

Records show the Kansas Supreme Court suspended his law license in 1969 and disbarred him in 1979 for harassing a court reporter. He later retired from the practice of law.

Now 11 of his 13 children are lawyers.

It wasn't until 1991 that the group's roughly 70 members - most related to Phelps - were first reviled for staging daily, in-your-face demonstrations that damned local residents to hell for any acceptance of homosexuality.

In the world according to Westboro, almost all "earthdwellers" are homosexuals or homosexual "enablers." Its "modest" members are the only ones eligible to be "God's elect." The church's Web site features cheery music videos of popular hip-hop songs that have been given new lyrics with an anti-homosexual message.

Westboro's moral campaign changed course radically after Sept. 11, 2001, to protesting military funerals from coast to coast. The protests occur regardless of whether the church believes the service member is homosexual.

Over the years, inside the suburban neighborhood around Phelps' church, a loose compound has taken shape for his followers. His granddaughter Megan Phelps-Roper says about a dozen houses within several blocks of the church are now owned by Westboro members.

The site occasionally attracts detractors. The day after the Baltimore jury verdict, someone left two homemade firecrackers on the property. Red spray-painted graffiti calling the Phelpses intolerant defaced the church's sign and privacy fence.

Inside the wood-paneled sanctuary with roughly 20 small pews with burnt-orange cushions, Phelps hosts a weekly Sunday service. Men mostly dress without ties, but women cover their heads. A baby grand piano sits on one side of the front of the room, and maps of the biblical Holy Land fill the other side.

A hymn begins and ends the two-hour, noontime service. In between is Phelps' fiery preaching.

"Today only certain ones are called and gifted to God to do this specialized work. Think picketing!" he exclaimed last Sunday.

Most of the family remains united and serve as active members of Westboro. But at least four of Fred Phelps' children and several grandchildren have left or been cast out as unworthy.

Nate Phelps, who left when he was 18, now lives in Canada. The estranged son recalls a childhood filled with beatings and a cloistered upbringing that discouraged outsiders.

"Growing up there in the midst of it, a lot of it, I didn't see unusual. It was all we knew," Nate Phelps said. "But there was constant violence or the threat of violence. There was just constant fear there."

Fred Phelps Sr., according to his son Nate, thrives on discord. The physically fit preacher often berated his children if they gained too much weight. They were also reprimanded for not selling enough candy to help support the church during lean times.

His siblings still in Westboro challenge that account.

"I made friends in school. I remember bringing people around," said 51-year-old Margie J. Phelps, the fourth of Fred Phelps' children. "This notion that we were closeted away is mythical."

Her father, according to Margie, is the kindest man she knows.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, another of Fred Phelps' daughters, said members do not fear contact with the outside - if not sinful - world. "It's not what goes in to you. It's what's in your heart."

Today, several Phelps children work for the state, including in prominent positions in the corrections department, one as a spokesman. And life for the children of Westboro appears to revolve around the church: performing in videos, attending services, doing well in school and listening to Bible stories every night.

"We are the happiest people," says Megan Phelps-Roper, 21.

Growing frustration

The defining moment for Westboro came in 1991, when Phelps rode his bicycle through Topeka's Gage Park with one of his grandsons.

Two homosexuals tried to "attack" the young boy in the park, which was known for homosexual trysts, according to the boy's mother, Shirley Phelps-Roper.

Family members say subsequent complaints by an outraged Fred Phelps led to a police crackdown on open-air sex in the park and sparked a larger campaign by Westboro against homosexuality that continues at the park every Sunday to this day.

Though church members describe their ministry as both fundamentalist and evangelical, they expect almost no one to agree with their message or join their church. Almost all members are part of the Phelps family.

"Paul said to do these things," Shirley Phelps-Roper says of the disciple of Jesus, adding that Westboro members consider the street-preaching ministry to be "our job" whether or not they gain converts.

For the most part, the Phelps clan is polite in conversation and adheres to local law in protests. But Shirley Phelps-Roper now faces criminal charges in Nebraska for letting one of her children trample on the American flag during a picketing.

Many times, the Phelpses have won these legal skirmishes. In years past, they have successfully challenged local and state laws in Kansas that attempted to restrict their protests.

Meanwhile, constant picketing has taken Westboro members to high-profile funerals for West Virginia miners, murdered gay college student Matthew Shepard and civil rights activist Coretta Scott King. Members have been on shows ranging from Howard Stern to a special for the British Broadcasting Corp., which dubbed them the "most hated family in America."

For years in Topeka, members of the gay community complained that little was being done against Westboro because its views had quiet support in the community.

But now, after church picketing of the fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan, many say Topeka residents, gay and straight, are uniting in their opposition to the Phelpses.

"Even if you're not liberal, they are so off in left field that no one today could agree with what they say and where they have been protesting," said Alvin Thoden, 32, a manager of a local gift store.

News of the multimillion-dollar jury award against Westboro last month received a warm welcome throughout Topeka, with the Capital-Journal editorial page exclaiming "Hallelujah" at the verdict.

"I was one of the people who smiled," said Mayor Bunten, a former Marine himself.

Still, the Shawnee County district attorney says Topeka's inability to contain the group's attacks on gays - and now dead soldiers - will always be a shameful part of the city's history.

"In the beginning, people were not as outraged by it and couldn't grasp that it would grow," said prosecutor Robert D. Hecht, who predicts the Baltimore verdict will stand up on appeal. "It's too easy to turn a blind eye."


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