Westboro

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The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is a radical, self-proclaimed Christian church headed by pastor Fred Phelps, a Democratic activist who has run for office unsuccessfully six different times. The church is located in Topeka, Kansas, and receives most of its publicity from its infamous "God Hates Fags" protests. It was founded in 1955, and began picketing in 1991 - it claims to have picketed over 45,300 times since then. The "church" is draped with an upside-down American Flag, and is contained within a walled compound housing it and five homes for Fred Phelps and his relatives.[1]

Westboro Baptist Church consists of a family of lawyers working for the Phelps Chartered Law Firm who reap massive monetary awards from suing those they rile up.[2] The ACLU has filed lawsuits in Ohio and Missouri on behalf of Westboro's activities without success.[1] The WBC is closely monitored by both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and is regarded by the latter as a hate group.[3] It is unaffiliated with all Baptist and Christian organizations, and the two largest Baptist denominations, the Baptist World Alliance and the Southern Baptist Convention, have denounced Westboro.[4]

Family Law Firm

Fred Phelps graduated from Washburn University School of Law in Topeka in 1962[5] and designed his church/family as a giant law firm used to sue those angry enough to retaliate against the "church" or to bar its offensive activities from their communities. Eleven of Phelps' thirteen children are lawyers. All five of the attorneys for the Phelps Chartered Law Firm, which Fred Phelps founded in 1964, are his children.[2] The firm is located at 1414 S.W. Topeka Blvd. in Topeka, Kansas.[6] As of 2001, at least 14 of Westboro's 22 adult members had law degrees.[7]

"'They scrupulously obeyed the ordinance' that kept them and their 'God hates fags' and 'America is doomed' signs away from the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, said Mark Potok, who directs Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. 'They're good at this,' Potok said, noting that the family has successfully sued many communities for monetary damages after they tried to restrict the family's constitutionally protected protests. 'They understand the First Amendment very, very well. They are not stupid people. They are vile people.'"

-Andrea Stone, AOL News[2]

The Kansas Supreme Court disbarred Fred Phelps himself in 1979 for a lack of ethics; he agreed to stop practicing law on condition 5 of his children (accused of making false accusations against federal judges) could continue to do so.[2] Because the firm represents Westboro Baptist Church in its lawsuits, it can use money from cases it wins to further fund the church.[3]

"'They have a very well-respected law firm in Topeka,' Sherman says. 'People in town said, Well, we don't like them, but if we want to win a case, we'll go to them.' Church spokeswoman Phelps-Roper says their booming employment and family law practice pays the bills for their travels across the country, when they shout their anti-gay message. They travel in vans to keep down the costs, which she says can add up to $200,000 a year... The protests are in themselves a source of some income, according to Potok. Over the years the Phelpses have filed lawsuits against communities that try to stop them from demonstrating. 'And as a general matter they have won,' he says. 'They know their First Amendment rights very well, and they've been very good at defending them.' When they win, they often receive tens of thousands of dollars in court fees. And their winning streak is likely to continue, now that the Supreme Court has decided that Westboro's right to free speech trumps the right of families to bury their loved ones undisturbed."

-Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR[8]

Though the firm is often successful, as observed by the SPLC, "One local lawyer, Pedro Irigonegaray, came up with a novel way to battle the Phelpses. When Phelps Chartered, alleging 'emotional damage,' sued someone who had filed a criminal complaint against a WBC member, Irigonegaray's team requested court approval to have a psychiatrist evaluate Phelps family members to determine the alleged damage. The Phelps firm settled without delay."[7]

Composition

Westboro's membership is made up of Fred Phelps, 9 of his 13 children (the others are estranged), their children and spouses, and a few other families and individuals.[3] Almost all of the church's roughly 100 members are related to Fred Phelps.[8] All four of Phelps' estranged children asserted in 1993-94 interviews that their father's religious beliefs were either non-existent or have dwindled to virtually nothing, and that Westboro serves rather to sate Phelps' addiction to hatred.[5]

Current

Members of the family/church and their relationships to Fred Phelps include:

  • Shirley Lynn Phelps-Roper, daughter.[2] Spokeswoman for the church, says that they picket funerals to make people angry so people will reject God and be condemned to Hell.[8] Lawyer for Phelps' law firm.[9]
  • Jonathan Baxter Phelps, son. Lawyer for Phelps' law firm.[9]
  • Elizabeth Marie Phelps, daughter. Worked for Shawnee County Sheriff's Department[3] and a lawyer for Phelps' law firm.[9]
  • Rachel Hockenbarger, daughter. Lawyer at Phelps' law firm.[6]
  • Fred W. Phelps Jr., son. Works for Kansas' Department of Corrections as a staff attorney[3] and is a lawyer for Phelps' law firm.[9]
  • Margie Jean Phelps, daughter. Works for the Kansas Department of Corrections[3] and is a lawyer for Phelps' law firm.[9]
  • Abigail Phelps, . Worked in Kansas' Juvenile Justice Authority in staff development.[3]
  • Lee Ann Phelps, . Worked for Shawnee County Sheriff's Department.[3]
  • Brent Roper, son in law. Married to Shirley Phelps-Roper, they have 11 children and 9 grandchildren.[2]
  • Betty Joan Phelps, daughter in law. Married to Fred W. Phelps Jr. and a lawyer for Phelps' law firm.[9]
  • Paulette Phelps, daughter in law. Married to Jonathan Baxter Phelps and works at Phelps' law firm as an office assistant.[6]
  • Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter. Daughter of Shirley Lynn Phelps-Roper. Works for Phelps' law firm as a spokesperson.[10]
  • Benjamin Phelps, grandson.[11]
  • Jacob Phelps, grandson.[11]
  • Charles F. Hockenbarger, .[12][11]
  • Chris Davis.[11]
  • Karl Hockenbarger, .[11]
  • Timothy Phelps.[11]

Estranged

Members who left the church and their relationship to Fred Phelps Sr. are as follows:

  • Nathan Phelps, son. Nathan claims his father abused his children and wife to create an atmosphere of fear and maintain authority.[3]
  • Mark Phelps, son.[5]
  • Katherine Phelps, daughter.[5]
  • Dotty Phelps, daughter.[5]
  • Libby Phelps, granddaughter. Married to Logan Alvarez.[10]
  • Lauren Drain, relationship uncertain.[13]

Protests

Westboro first began picketing in 1991[7] and has protested or otherwise targeted the following:

Calling from New York City where she was protesting at the United Nations building, church spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper said she was happy Albert Snyder, the Marine's father, had filed the lawsuit. "If he hadn't put us on trial, we wouldn't have exploded around the world," she said of the media exposure.

-James Carlson and Kevin Elliott, Topeka Capital-Journal.[14]

Groups

  • Homosexuals, including Matthew Shepard[8], Ellen DeGeneres, and Diane Whipple.[11]
  • Jews.[3]
  • The Catholic Pope[15] and the Catholic Church.[1]
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)[5] and the funeral of Gordon B. Hinckley its former president.[11]
  • Islam and Muslims.[5]
  • The Ku Klux Klan.[1]
  • The nations of Sweden, Canada, and Ireland.[5]
  • Joseph Estabrook Elementary School in Massachusetts.[5]

Victims of Massacres/Disasters

  • Funerals for victims of 9/11.[3]
  • Funerals for victims of the Virginia Tech massacre.[11]
  • Funerals for victims of the Westroads Mall massacre.[11]
  • Funerals for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.[5]
  • Funerals for U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan[3] including Spc. Edward Myers.[11]
  • Funerals for the 17 soldiers killed aboard the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.[1]
  • Funerals for Amish schoolgirls murdered in Pennsylvania.[3]
  • Funerals for victims who died when the I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapsed.[11]
  • Funerals for AIDS victims[3] including Kevin Oldham.[11]
  • Funerals for Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims.[16]
  • Funeral for Canadian bus victim Tim McLean.[17]

Celebrities

  • Billy Graham.[11]
  • Santa Claus.[1]
  • Musicians, including Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Sonny Bono,[3] Frank Sinatra,[1] Heath Ledger,[11] Taylor Swift,[18] Vince Gill, Kesha, and Blake Shelton.[19]
  • Actors and television personalities, including Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Fred Rogers, Jerry Falwell,[5] and Cory Monteith.[20]
  • Political figures, including Bob Dole, Bill Clinton's mother[3], Ronald Reagan, Princess Diana, Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, former Senator David Norris,[5] Coretta Scott King,[11] Topeka Mayor James McClinton, and Princess Madeleine of Sweden.[11]
  • Reggie White.[5]

Democratic Party Activism

1988: Al Gore Campaign

The Westboro Church assisted Al Gore's Kansas campaign in 1988 and provided rooms for his campaign workers. Fred Phelps Jr. was a Gore delegate to the 1988 Democratic National Convention[5] and invited to the first Clinton-Gore inauguration in 1993.[12]

1990-98: Phelps for Governor

  • In 1990, Phelps Sr. ran for Governor of Kansas in the Democratic primary election and received 6.7% of the vote.[12]
  • In 1994, Fred Phelps Sr. ran for Governor in the Democratic primary election and received 5,300 votes.[21]
  • In 1998, Fred Phelps Sr. ran for Governor in the Democratic primary election and received 14.7% of the vote.[22]

1992: Phelps for U.S. Senate

In 1992, Fred Phelps Sr. ran for U.S. Senate in the Democratic primary election and received 30.8% of the ballots cast.[12]

1993-97: Phelps for Mayor

  • In 1993, Fred Phelps Sr. ran for Topeka mayor in the Democratic primary election and received 1.8% of the ballots cast.[23]
  • In 1997, Fred Phelps Sr. ran for Topeka mayor in the Democratic primary election.

Castro and Hussein Support

Phelps has strongly supported Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein in the past. Hussein allowed a group of Westboro delegates to visit Iraq to protest against the U.S.[5]

Legal Developments

2011: Snyder v. Phelps

In 2011 the church's speech, i.e. picketing of funerals, was ruled as protected under the First Amendment in Snyder v. Phelps. The Church, represented by Shirley Phelps, had picketed a Marine's funeral, and the Marine's father sued for emotional distress. The ACLU and NPR, amongst others, filed amicus briefs in favor of Phelps, while many Congressmen filed on behalf of Snyder. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "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. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case."

2012 Congressional Ban on Protests

In August 2012 Congress passed new restrictions on funeral protests aimed at Westboro's questionable activities, banning protests within 300 feet of a funeral within a 2-hour span of the funeral's starting and ending times.[24] Westboro responded by saying there's "usually some prime real estate at 301 feet."[25]

2012-13 Court Decisions

In October 2012, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a St. Louis suburb could enforce a law restricting funeral protests.[26] In August 2013 a federal district judge, Audrey Fleissig, upheld a Missouri county's ban on funeral protests as constitutional, noting its similarity to the 2012 ruling.[27]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Southern Poverty Law Center. Fred Phelps. Intelligence Profiles.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Stone, A. (2011, May 3). Fred Phelps' Daughters May Misread Bible but They Know the Law. AOL News.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 Southern Poverty Law Center. Intelligence Files: Westboro Baptist Church.
  4. (2009, February 19). "Baptists Denounce Latest Westboro Stunt." Christianity Today.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 About Fred Phelps. FredPhelps.com.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Fry, S. (2010, October 5). Powder Sent to Phelps Law Firm. The Topeka Capital-Journal.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Southern Poverty Law Center. Topeka: A City Bulled into Submission by the Westboro Baptist Church. Intelligence Report, Spring 2001, Issue Number: 101.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Hagerty, B.B. (2011, March 2). A Peek Inside the Westboro Baptist Church. NPR.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 Taschler, J. & Fry, S. (1994, August 3). Phelps' Law Career Checkered. The Topeka Capital-Journal.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Arnett, D. (2011, November 21). Megan Phelps-Roper of Westboro Baptist Church: An heir to hate. The Kansas City Star.
  11. 11.00 11.01 11.02 11.03 11.04 11.05 11.06 11.07 11.08 11.09 11.10 11.11 11.12 11.13 11.14 11.15 11.16 About Westboro Baptist Church. FredPhelps.com.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Southern Poverty Law Center. Fred Phelps Timeline. Intelligence Report, Spring 2001, Issue Number: 101.
  13. Wing, Nick (2013, July 9). Lauren Drain, Westboro Baptist Church Escapee, Starts Campaign To Save Others From 'Cult'. The Huffington Post.
  14. Carlson, J. & Elliott, K. (2009, September 24). Court Overturns WBC Judgment. The Topeka Capital-Journal.
  15. Anti-Defamation League. Extremism in America: Westboro Baptist Church.
  16. Stenovec, Timothy (2012, December 16). Westboro Baptist Church Says It Will Picket Vigil For Connecticut School Shooting Victims. The Huffington Post.
  17. (2008, August 8). Church members enter Canada, aiming to picket bus victim's funeral. CBC News.
  18. Marcus, Stephanie (2013, June 28). Westboro Baptist Church Plans To Picket Taylor Swift Concert, Calls Her A 'Whore'. The Huffington Post.
  19. (2013, September 26). Blake Shelton, Westboro Baptists' Latest Target, Is The Opposite Of Scared. The Huffington Post.
  20. (2013, July 15). Westboro Baptist Church's Plan To Picket Cory Monteith's Funeral Is Shameful. The Huffington Post.
  21. Hull, Katrina (2001, February 24). In-Depth: Fred Phelps. Associated Press.
  22. CNN. Kansas Primary Results - Aug. 4, 1998. AllPolitics.
  23. Musser, Rick. In-Depth: Fred Phelps vs. Topeka. Topeka Capital-Journal Online.
  24. Cohen, Tom (2012, August 3). Church says military funeral protests will continue despite new restrictions. CNN.
  25. Reilly, Molly (2012, August 9). Veterans' Families Thankful For Legislation Restricting Westboro Baptist Church Protests. The Huffington Post.
  26. Salter, Jim (2012, October 16). Appeals Court Upholds Funeral Protest Ordinance Aimed At Westboro Baptist Church. Associated Press.
  27. Wing, Nick (2013, August 22). Westboro Baptist Church Smacked Down By Federal Judge In Lawsuit Against Missouri County. The Huffington Post.