On March 19, Fred Phelps, the patriarch and founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas passed away at age 84. Goodbye and good riddance. I’m glad the old bastard is dead. It would be even better if the rest of his family could join him, but their time will come, too.
Westboro gained notoriety in the early 1990s as a rabidly anti-abortion and homophobic clan. They tested the limits of free speech with the simple act of protesting – a test that would take them to the U.S. Supreme Court. Westboro’s roots date back to 1931, when it originated as a branch of Topeka’s East Side Baptist Church. In 1955, however, Phelps broke ties with East Side and established Westboro.
As a biblical literalist, Fred Phelps held a very narrow view of the world and believed anyone who strayed from it was hell-bound. But, he wasn’t just some cantankerous loudmouth who adored media attention. He was a convicted criminal. In 1947, Phelps was a student at Bob Jones University, when he and some fellow pupils traveled to Vernal, Utah to try converting people from Mormonism. After Phelps gave a speech condemning the Mormon religion, a young man in the audience asked him a theological question. Phelps apparently didn’t know the answer and – as idiots are often wont to do – physically attacked the man. The scuffle almost incited a riot. In 1951, Phelps found himself in Pasadena, California, where he led a protest to make kissing in public a criminal felony. When a police officer told him he didn’t have permission to protest, the then-21-year-old assaulted him.
Phelps actually had a good start in life. He was a Boy Scout who earned the coveted Eagle Scout Award. He graduated from high school at age 16 and was admitted to the United State Military Academy in West Point New York. While there, however, he attended a Methodist revival meeting and decided to become a minister instead of attending West Point.
Phelps and his wife, Margie, met at the Arizona Bible Institute in 1951 and married the following year. They eventually had 13 children. Phelps went on to earn a law degree from Washburn University in 1962 and, ironically, developed a reputation as a civil rights lawyer. He even won an award from the NAACP for his work on civil rights cases. But, his career began to disintegrate in 1979, when he was disbarred in the state of Kansas for perjury. He spiraled further out of control with complaints of harassment, witness intimidation and more false testimonies, until 1987, when he was permanently forbidden from practicing law.
In 1991, WBC began its notorious and never-ending anti-gay crusade by protesting at Topeka’s Gage Park; claiming it was a hotbed of homosexual activity. Phelps and his gang seemed to cross a fragile line, however, when they began picketing at the funerals of AIDS victims around the same time. They bought into the right-wing evangelical mantra that AIDS was God’s condemnation of the homosexual lifestyle. Even those who staunchly opposed homosexuality found funeral protests a bit much. WBC harassed gay-oriented businesses, women’s clinics and other institutions they despised by repeatedly faxing – and later emailing – them obscenity-laced messages. Every time someone complained, WBC cited the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees – among other things – the right to free speech.
For some free speech advocates, the WBC tactics raised troubling questions. Free speech is a critical element of a truly democratic society. The U.S. and other developed nations pride themselves on the right of their citizens to speak out; no matter how offensive the verbiage may be. The late comic Lenny Bruce pushed the bounds of free speech with racially-tinged topics and foul language during his live standup routines in the 1950s. He was arrested and fined on occasion.
In 1977, free speech took a darker turn, when a neo-Nazi group planned a march in Skokie, Illinois. Skokie wasn’t a random selection. After World War II, the Chicago suburb had become home to several survivors of Europe’s Nazi death camps. At the time, about 40,500 of the city’s estimated 70,000 residents were Jewish. To them, the sight of people proudly waving the Nazi swastika was a painful reminder of one of the 20th century’s worst periods. Led by Frank Collin, the neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Party of America, applied for a permit to march on May 1, 1977. Concerned about the antagonism such an event would generate, the Skokie Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance requiring marchers to post a $350,000 insurance bond. NSPA sued, stating that the ordinance violated the Constitution’s First Amendment. The case made it to the Illinois Supreme Court, which upheld the Skokie bond resolution. NSPA pursued the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned it, noting that free speech covered even hate speech.
Free speech came under review again in 1984, when Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag outside the Republican National Convention in Dallas. He was protesting the policies of President Ronald Reagan, which subsequently led to his arrest on charges that he violated a Texas statute preventing the desecration of venerable objects, such as the U.S. flag. Johnson sued, claiming the Texas law violated his free speech rights. The case landed at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989, which ruled in his favor. At the time, I worked for a bank in downtown Dallas and, on my way to lunch one afternoon, encountered a group of patriotic young men who were, oddly enough, protesting the Supreme Court’s decision. They were some kind of ROTC-type group; attired in suits and banging drums to the tune of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” They were also gathering signatures for a petition to the Supreme Court, hoping somehow to get the decision reversed. I signed it, but thought about it later. Can free speech be so limited?
Fred Phelps, his family and their supporters were always on a mission. They hated everyone and protested everywhere. They believed strongly that the United States had a one-way ticket to the “Dark Side” because of its tolerance of abortion, adultery, homosexuality, non-Christian theologies and other vices. In their view, each natural- or human-made catastrophe was a sign of God’s wrath upon America. From such horrors as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to seemingly random events, like the 2003 nightclub fire in Warwick, Rhode Island, Westboro claimed God was sending an omen.
Their hatred reached a putrid climax when they began picketing at the funerals of military personnel killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Along with carrying their regular “God Hates Fags” signs (that’s actually the name of their web site), they also bore placards with such terms as “Thank God for I.E.D.s (improved explosive devices)” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Singing “God Damn America,” while dragging the U.S. flag on the ground, Westboro touched nerves of raw pain for the families of the dead. In 2006, Westboro made their way to Maryland to picket at the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder who had been killed in Iraq. Snyder’s father, Albert, stated he couldn’t tell what was emblazoned on the group’s placards, but learned about it from later news reports. Albert Snyder sued, claiming Westboro’s actions caused him great emotional distress. Phelps countered naturally that his church was merely exercising its free speech rights. But, a Maryland court agreed with Snyder and granted him a $10.9 million judgment against Phelps. Phelps appealed and got the decision reversed. Snyder pursued the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with Westboro.
I see one major problem with the Snyder case. The family sued for emotional distress, which is immeasurable. The case, as I saw it, centered on harassment, slander and stalking. WBC placed Matthew Snyder’s Marine Corps portrait on its web site juxtapositioned alongside various slurs like “fag” and “murderer.” They also traveled all the way to Maryland from Kansas for the sole purpose of picketing his funeral. But, the Snyder family focused on the emotional distress issue, instead of stalking and slander, which aren’t protected by free speech. Therefore, I can actually understand why the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Westboro.
“Let me put this in more common vernacular,” Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of Fred’s daughters, told a TV reporter during another picket. “He (Albert Snyder) got his feelings hurt.” She went on to explain that Westboro had no regard for the Snyder family’s “feelings.” I’m sure it’s mutual.
Six of Fred’s children, including Shirley, are lawyers. In fact, Shirley Phelps-Roper argued their case before the Supreme Court, which is highly unusual. Generally, litigants before the Court don’t present their own cases.
Four of Fred’s children, including his oldest son Nate, abandoned their family, which essentially prompted their excommunication from Westboro. I’m quite certain that didn’t hurt their feelings. When the Snyder case arose, Nate Phelps, an atheist, went public and denounced his family’s antics, calling the funeral protests “evil.” But, in a television interview, he also made a stunning accusation: his father had often beaten his mother, as well as him and his siblings. No one at Westboro validated his claims. But, that should surprise no one. Some of the most devoutly religious people are also among the most physically abusive. They use their religion to justify the violence.
I’ve always wondered if someone would put a bullet through the heads of Phelps or one his brood. People have slung rocks at them, and Phelps even got sprayed with mace during one protest at a gay rights march. WBC maintains a hefty travel account to support their activities; money that would be better spent, for example, funding education or feeding homeless people. But, just as you can’t tell people what to do with their money, you really can’t tell them how to practice free speech.
I sincerely hope Fred Phelps suffered a long and painful demise. I’m not religious – in the traditional sense – but I am spiritual and believe in an afterlife of some sort. I envision Phelps encountering the souls of all the people whose funerals he protested at or whose tragic deaths he celebrated on his voyage into the netherworld. I can see them waving with gentle smiles, as he descends into the darkness. The right to free speech is sacred to most freedom-loving people. But, it doesn’t guarantee a place on the lap of whatever god you worship.
Westboro gets run out of Moore, Oklahoma.