Anti-gay church known for its no-shows

The New Mexican/March 25, 2005
By Henry M. Lopez

Civic and religious leaders in Santa Fe have slightly more than three weeks to prepare for the arrival of anti-gay activists from Kansas who Wednesday announced their intention to picket churches and city government they deem accepting of gays. The group, however, has a history of no-shows for such events.

The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., and its leader, the Rev. Fred Phelps, are known for launching vehement rhetorical attacks against gays and institutions they believe to be gayfriendly . The church is best known for picketing the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man beaten to death in Laramie, Wyo.

Phelps had planned a demonstration at the University of Mississippi on March 23 to coincide with a lecture given by Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard's mother. News reports indicate student activists had geared up for a series of counterdemonstrations. But they were left with nothing to protest because no one from Phelps' church showed up.

Members of Phelps' church also did not show up at a planned demonstration in Tucson , Ariz., on Jan. 10. Phelps' church had been expected to protest a play that had been performed by students at Rincon High School. The play, The Laramie Project, depicts the life of Matthew Shepard, the same young man whose funeral had been picketed seven years earlier.

Phelps' group said it targeted Santa Fe after reading about the city's reaction to the recent beatings of two gay men.

A representative of the church was unavailable to comment on whether the church intended to show up in Santa Fe to demonstrate on April 17 and 18 or if the announcement to come to Santa Fe was merely a scare tactic.

Santa Fe Police Chief Beverly Lennen said she became aware of Phelps' intention to visit Santa Fe after reading about it in The New Mexican. The department had received several phone calls from people who read the article and were concerned about public safety.

Police will prepare for the arrival of the church's contingent beginning next week, Lennen said. She said preparations would include meeting with city leaders and legal advisers, community groups and members of the Westboro Baptist Church. "We have a responsibility to assure everyone freedom of speech whether or not we agree," Lennen said.

Lennen said Santa Fe police would also consult with law enforcement agencies that have dealt with demonstrations and counterdemonstrations resulting from visits by Phelps' followers.

She also warned against people getting overly passionate, and even violent, during a possible protest. "We can not allow our community to become a battlefield," Lennen said.

Phelps' followers plan to picket eight Santa Fe churches on April 17: First Baptist Church, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Cristo Rey Catholic Church, St. Bede's Episcopal Church, Grace Community Church, Lutheran Church of the Servant, St. John's United Methodist Church and First Presbyterian Church. The group plans a picket of the city's government the following day, according to a news release.

The Rev. Dick Murphy of St. Bede's Episcopal Church said he had received calls from parishioners concerning Phelps' visit. Murphy said he plans to speak with experts trained in how best to deal with hate groups. He said his current focus remains on the rites of Holy Week, the week preceding Easter, the holiest day of the Christian year commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

While St. Bede's has a reputation for its acceptance of gays, some clergy and lay people expressed surprise the Westboro Baptist Church decided to target several churches often thought to be conservative in relation to same-sex relationships.

Shirley Phelps-Roper , daughter of Fred Phelps and a lawyer for the Westboro Baptist Church, said in a Wednesday interview that her father's church often relies on information provided through word-of-mouth , e-mail and by searching church Web sites.

If a church Web site makes the statement "God Loves Everyone," she said, then that church is teaching a doctrine that goes against her father's teachings. The Westboro Baptist Church's Web site argues that such teachings create a permissive culture not sanctioned by Phelps' interpretation of the Bible.

Fred Phelps, 75, was born in Meridian, Miss., and moved to Topeka on May 4, 1954, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the "separate but equal" doctrine in Brown v. The Board of Education , Topeka, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. He was ordained a Baptist preacher at the age of 17.

Phelps earned a law degree from Washburn University in Topeka and was admitted to the bar that year. He was disbarred in Kansas for ethical violations in 1979, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Before his disbarment, he represented black clients in several civil-rights cases. He would later be rewarded for that work in 1986 and 1987 with several awards, including one from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The church's membership is largely made up of direct family and relatives. Phelps has 13 children and more than 50 grandchildren.

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