Westboro-FBI dialogue sparks change at agency

The Kansas City Star/June 29, 2011

Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-gay Topeka congregation known for protesting military funerals, has sent guest speakers to FBI training sessions, the bureau said.

But church members won't be welcome in the future.

The sessions were designed to teach younger FBI agents and law-enforcement officers around the country how to deal with groups they strongly disagree with, said church member Timothy Phelps, who spoke at some of the sessions.

According to National Public Radio, which first reported the story, the bureau won't invite the congregation back.

The Associated Press quoted an unnamed FBI official who said the bureau underestimated how Westboro Baptist's involvement would be viewed.

The church believes that God hates the United States because the country tolerates homosexuality. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the congregation's right to protest outside funerals.

Phelps, son of pastor Fred Phelps, told The Star that he participated in four training sessions in 2010 and 2011 at FBI facilities in Quantico and Manassas, Va.

Phelps said he emphasized the need to respect his church's First Amendment rights. The agents and officers were allowed to ask questions, and some of them were aggressive, but Phelps described the sessions as "very dynamic."

Some of the officers and agents, though, questioned the decision to have Westboro Baptist members speak and contacted FBI leadership, which didn't know about the sessions, NPR reported. Church members were not paid for speaking, Phelps and the FBI told NPR.

FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said Westboro was invited "in an effort to establish open dialogue in an academic setting to train law enforcement on how to more effectively engage with the activist community."

In the future, there will be additional layers of review or approval before an outside speaker is invited, an unnamed official told the AP.

Phelps said he learned from the NPR report that Westboro will not be invited again.

"It doesn't surprise me," Phelps said. "We don't have an agenda other than to preach. If we're not there, we're going to be somewhere else."

Phelps argued that it was a good idea to invite his congregation to speak and that it was wrong to stop "because someone gets their feelings hurt."

The FBI training sessions often included police officials from several different states, and Westboro Baptist travels around the country for its protests. The sessions informed police about how the church operates — which Phelps said is always within the law.

In some cases, Phelps said, police don't manage protests in a professional way. He pointed to a case last year in Omaha, Neb., where a citizen tried to spray Westboro protesters, but hit counter-protesters.

"When the professionalism breaks down, people get hurt," Phelps said, "and it isn't us."

The Star's James Hart and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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