Is the death of Westboro Baptist leader Fred Phelps cause for celebration? [Commentary]

I never thought I could feel such gratitude toward a posse of motorcycle riders as I did the day Brendan Looney was buried beside his best friend, Travis Manion, in Arlington National Cemetery.

They screened the grieving families of the two Naval Academy graduates from the hateful placards carried by the members of the Westboro Baptist Church who celebrated the deaths of those young men as evidence of God's retribution on our sinful nation. And riders revved their engines so the families could not hear the chants.

Both attended Navy with my son. Brendan, an Annapolis kid as are my own, was well-known in their circle of friends. Travis, from Philadelphia, had been my son Joe's wrestling teammate. Travis and Brendan had been roommates and as close as brothers. Burying them side-by-side was solace for their families.

If there is something more powerful than empathy, that is what Naval Academy parents feel for each other, whether we have met or not. It is a terrible kind of knowing, of understanding. And the desecration of that funeral stung deeply.

Now Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church and the man who had his followers carry signs saying "Thank God for dead soldiers," among an assortment of other vile things, is dead. It was also revealed that his own church had excommunicated him last summer. But it was some kind of power struggle, not a repudiation of his hate speech.

Phelps and his church members were not particular about who they hurt. They celebrated the Boston Marathon bombings and the deaths of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Every innocent victim was a sign that God had turned his back on the United States because of its acceptance of homosexuality. They picketed a memorial service for Mr. Rogers for leading children astray.

Phelps first came to national attention in 1998 when he and his followers — most of them members of his enormous family — picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, who had been beaten, tied to a fence post and left to die in a remote part of Wyoming because, it came out in the trials of his killers, he was gay.

Matthew Shepard went on to become a symbol of the persecution of gays, and even his mother, Judy Shepard, was willing to give Phelps credit for elevating her son in the nation's attention.

Alyssa Rosenberg, writing in The Washington Post, said, "For more than two decades, the Westboro Baptist Church has been the tin can tied to the tail of those who oppose the expansion of marriage equality."

The views of the church were so extreme it was easy to organize against it, she wrote. And even those who are lukewarm on the subject of equal rights for gays would never want to be aligned with Westboro Baptist.

I expected to see jubilation at Phelps' death, and I wasn't disappointed. Comments posted on the news stories about it were as filled with hate as he was. "Bury him face down so he will get a better view of his new digs," wrote one commenter. "Great, I'll drink to his death!!" wrote another.

His death was celebrated, just as he and his followers celebrated the deaths of servicemen, and if you don't see the hypocrisy in this, you aren't paying attention.

Steven Petrow, former president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, also writing in The Post, called for us to "bombard Westboro Baptist with sympathy cards and prayers." Responding to hate with hate binds us to the other person as long as we continue to feel that way, he wrote.

We do not cover ourselves with glory when we take pleasure in the death of anyone, although we can be relieved that Fred Phelps' voice has been silenced. His version of God as an angry, vengeful God is no comfort to anyone.

And we can't take much pride in the fact that it took Fred Phelps' particular brand of hatred of gays and lesbians to nudge us as a nation toward acceptance and the granting of equal rights, as I am convinced it did.

Finally, there are calls to picket the man's funeral and show those who mourn him what it is like to have their tears mocked and to know that their grief is a cause for celebration.

At last report, the family said there would not be one.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on

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