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SKEPTOID BLOG:

There Will Be No Funeral for Fred Phelps

by Jen Burd

March 23, 2014

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Donate Westboro Baptist Church founder, Fred Phelps, died from natural causes late Wednesday night while in hospice care in Topeka, Kansas. Most Americans know Phelps as the mastermind behind Westboro Baptist's outrageous, bigoted protests of military funerals. Contrary to many misconstrued reports from satirical news sites, there will be no funeral for Phelps' detractors to picket. Westboro Baptist Church members regard funereal practices as "worshiping the dead."

Phelps and his church members are universally reviled; liberals, along with many right-wingers, object to their aggressively homophobic messages. Conservatives oppose their flagrantly disrespectful practice of picketing military funerals, and mainstream Christians view Westboro Baptist as misrepresenting Christianity as intolerant and hateful. Even the late Reverend Pete Peters of the racist Christian Identity movement, who shared Phelps' views on homosexuality, criticized Phelps for pushing society "towards tolerance [of] homosexual perverts" with his vocal and abusive protests.

The Phelps family, who make up almost all of Westboro Baptist members, have impressively few supporters. The church had about 40 members at its peak. Many have left. A church member estimated that between 2007 and 2011, attendance declined from 70 to 40 churchgoers on Sundays, and audience turnout has continued to decline since.

The Westboro Baptist Church has spent an estimated tax-exempt $250,000 a year on plane tickets to stage protests in 922 cities across the US. They come wielding signs with slogans like "God Hates America," "God Hates Fags," and "Pray for More Dead Soldiers."

Phelps began his career as an associate pastor at the Eastside Baptist Church in Topeka in 1954. The next year, Phelps was chosen as the pastor for the new branch, the Westboro Baptist Church. He promptly severed connections with Eastside Baptist.

Phelps was once a lauded civil rights lawyer. He received a law degree from Washburn University in Topeka in 1964 and opened the Phelps Chartered Law Firm soon after. He believed that God had called him to action to fight discrimination against African Americans. Of his law career, Phelps said "I knew it was wrong the way those black people were treated. I instinctively knew it was against the word of God."

In his early days, Phelps was known as a quick-witted and skilled lawyer. He successfully represented a number of African American school children in discrimination cases against Kansas school districts. In 1979, he filed and won a lawsuit against a group of Topeka police officers after a raid on a bar in which the officers "illegally strip-searched, detained, and treated in a threatening and abusive manner" African American patrons because of their race. Phelps Chartered often worked employment discrimination cases pro bono.

Phelps won various awards and honors from organizations such as the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government and the Bonner Springs branch NAACP. His daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, recalls facing hostility from the community for the family's involvement in civil rights litigation: "We took on the Jim Crow establishment, and Kansas did not take that sitting down. They used to shoot our car windows out, screaming we were nigger lovers."

Phelps was disbarred in the state of Kansas for his behavior relating to a suit he had filed against court reporter Carolene Brady, which the Kansas Supreme Court called "a classic case of 'badgering' a witness." During the trial, Phelps questioned Brady for three or four days, making accusations about her sexual behavior and calling her a "slut."

Phelps continued to practice in federal courts until 1987, when he lost his license for harassing local individuals and businesses with letters threatening lawsuits. His children, 11 of whom are lawyers, continue to maintain the law firm. These days, they spend most of their time and resources defending themselves.

Since the Phelps family began their pickets, they have reformulated their views of discrimination and social justice. They are known for condemning what they perceive as the government's legal support for the LGBT community, and in the early '90s, the church circulated a number of faxes with racist headlines including "INCOMPETENT BLACK WHORE" and "BLACK BULLIES BEAT WHITE KIDS AND WOMEN." Along with their homepage, godhatesfags.com, they host a number of provocative domains such as godhatesislam.com, jewskilledjesus.com, priestsrapeboys.com, and obamabeast.com.

The Westboro Baptist Church began their pickets in 1991, after authorities allegedly failed to respond to their complaints about homosexual activity in Gage Park in Wichita, Kansas, blocks away from their home. The group gained notoriety in 1998 when they picketed the funeral of hate crime victim Matthew Shepard.

They continued picketing funerals, including those of deceased military personnel and public figures such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Al Gore Sr. They've made appearances picketing events such as Lady Gaga concerts. They picket the Oscars regularly. According to their website, they have organized 52,357 pickets to date.

Victims have continually taken legal measures against the Phelps family for their behavior at funerals, but the family of lawyers is careful to remain with in strictures of the First Amendment. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both signed laws limiting the duration and proximity of funeral protests, but the Phelpses continue to make appeals based on free speech. Many observers consider their behavior at pickets to be outright harassment, not protected by freedom of expression.

On March 14, 2014, Phelps' estranged son, Nathan Phelps, posted a Facebook status claiming that his father had been excommunicated from the Westboro Baptist Church and was "on the edge of death." Phelps died five days later. It is unknown how Nathan Phelps, a public atheist who left the church 37 years ago, obtained this information.

Reports of conflict within Westboro Baptist have since surfaced. According to Nathan Phelps, his father was excommunicated for suggesting that leaders utilize a "kinder approach" when dealing with church members in September of 2013. Additionally, the church has formed an all-male board of elders in an effort to seize power from former public spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper.

The Westboro Baptist Church released a few statements on their blog in response to questions raised by Nathan Phelps. On Fred Phelps' excommunication, they wrote: "Q: Has Fred Phelps been 'excluded' from membership at Westboro Baptist Church? A: Membership issues are private."

On the internal leadership shift, "Listen carefully; there are no power struggles in the Westboro Baptist Church, and there is no human intercessor — we serve no man, and no hierarchy, only the Lord Jesus Christ. No red shoes, no goofy hat, and no white smoke for us; thank you very much." The Topeka Capital-Journal confirmed that their calls to Shirley Phelps-Roper had been redirected to new spokesman Steven Drain over the past couple of months.

In the academic study of religion, groups like Westboro Baptist are called New Religious Movements (NRMs) to avoid lumping in all small religious upstarts with the Jonestown massacre, Charles Manson crowds; new religious groups tend to be labeled as crazies regardless of their messages, which are often no less absurd than the idea of an invisible man in the sky handing down dietary restrictions, or a resurrected deity who demands that followers consume his flesh on a weekly basis.

Scholarly approach aside, the Westboro Baptist Church is clearly a cult. The real tragedy is what happens to its members, particularly children raised in Westboro Baptist. The protests isolate church members, who only know lives of hurling hate speech at strangers and receiving the same treatment in turn.

The Westboro Baptist Church is hostile to all other religious groups. They preach the idea that anyone who is not affiliated with their church is going to hell. Young church members generally eschew the idea of marriage because there aren't any viable candidates who are not related to them.

They regularly stage protests outside of local religious institutions, including temples, mosques, and mainstream churches. In 1997, Fred Phelps wrote a letter to Saddam Hussein, praising his anti-American actions and requesting to visit Iraq, which Church members did the following year. Even so, Phelps maintained that Hussein was going to Hell.

Their protests are not confined to military funerals, where they preach the idea that God hates the military, along with America in general, for presuming that LGBT people have the right to live. Church members are rewarded for provoking strangers, causing pain and outrage, and engaging in verbal confrontations with nearly every non-relative they come across. Isolated church members have no external support if they leave the church or get kicked out. Phelps' dogmatic principle of embodying the perpetual outsider enabled him to retain his meager following for as long as he did.

Useful Links:

Louis Theroux documentaries for BBC: The Most Hated Family in America and The Most Hated Family in American in Crisis

"The Man Who Loves to Hate," Mother Jones, 1999.

The Topeka-Capital Journal.

The WBC Website.

by Jen Burd

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