Westboro prepares for its biggest stage

Declining membership aside, church spreads its message of doom

York Daily Record/October 2, 2010

It's been a busy few months in Topeka.

Margie Phelps - member of the Westboro Baptist Church, daughter of its founder the Rev. Fred Phelps, lead counsel in the most important of the church's many legal battles -- has had so many things to get done.

Legal briefs to study. Oral arguments to rehearse. A trip to the mall, Washington Post photographer in tow, to buy a suit for her appearance Wednesday before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The media have come to Kansas like never before, she said in a recent telephone interview, and we have to work with them. How better to spread the word that America, having ignored all of the Phelpses' warnings, will soon be destroyed like Babylon for its acceptance of homosexuality and refusal to repent?

There's so much to do, and every day is a whirl of activity. Really, she said, it has been since Albert Snyder sued the church in 2006.

Back then, she said, Westboro had about 70 members, nearly all of them related to her father by blood or marriage, living a stone's throw from the other congregants and the sanctuary.

That number has shrunk, she said, to about 50 members, plus another 15 or so people who attend services but have not made a pledge of faith. Those that have left are almost all young people, her nieces and nephews.

"It's not usually a conversation," she said. "It's a note left behind."

They simply don't believe, she said, like the other 310 million people in this damned nation. Before it's all over, she predicted, the church will lose even more members.

But with protests to stage, reporters' notebooks to fill and, of course, a case that could alter the way courts interpret the First Amendment, the believers can't be bothered by such things.

"Honest to goodness," Margie said, "it's hardly a blip on the radar at this point."

Margie and her siblings didn't know it would come to this two decades ago, when their father staged his first public protest at a Topeka park where he said men were meeting for anonymous gay sex.

That led to other protests around town -- at gay bars, against politicians who disagreed with them, and at other activities the Rev. Phelps felt defied the bible, and the first incarnations of their pro-hate signs. Then, the Westboro congregants began showing up at the funerals, in Topeka and elsewhere, of men who died from AIDS, just as the nation was understanding the scope of the disease.

Soon, the Rev. Phelps had developed a new picketing ministry. In addition to filling his pews, his children and their children now had an obligation to stand with him. They soon learned it required a different type of devotion, according to Margie.

"You have to be skilled at keeping rank on the picket lines," she said. "You have to be skilled at making signs that pop ... you have to work with police."

And, she said, you have to be inviting of media coverage.

This was not new for the Rev. Phelps. Time magazine profiled him in 1951 for preaching on the campus of California's John Muir College, denouncing "promiscuous petting," "evil language" and "pandering to the lusts of the flesh" by his fellow students.

But by the turn of the millennium, through magazine profiles and appearances on shows like "20/20" and "Jerry Springer," millions were exposed to the Westboro Baptist Church, basically the Phelps family and a few friends.

As they shifted their protests from gay and lesbian events to the funerals of fallen soldiers, the Phelpses reached Americans who had not previously paid them much attention. By traveling the country to stage thousands of protests, they continually offered newspapers and television stations in different media markets the chance to cover an outrageous protest, often complete with counter-protestors.

All the attention has brought the family additional scrutiny. Three of the Rev. Phelps' adult children who have left the church have accused their father of severe physical and psychological abuse in interviews, including with, Mother Jones magazine, the New York Daily News and ABC News. The Rev. Phelps and his children who are still with the church have denied the allegations, saying he spanked the children in accordance with the bible. The Rev. Phelps was never charged with child abuse.

But they will not shy away from the spotlight anytime soon.

Working with the media is a skill, Margie said. "We're working to perfect these skills."

So if they win, if the court rules that the Phelpses' protests are protected by the First Amendment, what then? What would they want to see happen?

"I would like to see the nation repent and mourn for its sins and turn back to God ... but that's not going to happen," Margie said. "This nation has crossed a line. We're too late.

"We've been telling you for months that your doom is imminent and we're not kidding about that. We use words seriously.

"(America is) going to be reduced to a bituminous heap. A smoking heap where it will sit while the rest of the world goes on."

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