$11 million verdict brings scrutiny of Phelps finances

The Kansas City Star/November 23, 2007

By David Klepper

Topeka -- Countless flights across the country. Car rentals, gas money, food and lodging. All those cardboard signs. For the 71 members of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church, the costs of doing business must add up.

And those costs could soon grow a lot higher. A Maryland jury recently ordered Westboro to pay nearly $11 million to the father of a fallen soldier whose funeral was the subject of one of Westboro's protests.

Many hope the lawsuit, and future ones like it, will put the notorious church out of business for good. It's something that new funeral picketing bans, now passed in 43 states, have proved unable to do.

For years, Phelps' activities were largely unknown to those outside of Topeka, unreported by media unwilling to hand him the publicity he sought. The church became impossible to ignore, however, when it began protesting military funerals, saying soldiers' deaths were divine retribution for America's tolerance of homosexuality.

"It's just awful, insulting," said Brandy Sacco of Topeka. Her husband, Army Sgt. Dominic Sacco, was killed in Iraq. At his funeral in 2005, Westboro members held signs saying soldiers - and Americans in general - were doomed to hell.

"These people have to be stopped somehow," Brandy Sacco said.

Now the Maryland lawsuit has added to the public scrutiny of this small group that uses the law and religion as shields and wields outrage as a club.

The church can't afford to pay the $10.9 million in damages and has filed documents asking a federal judge to stay the jury award pending appeal and to throw it out as a matter of law. In a separate filing, the Phelps family has also asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in the case to protect the church's right to protest at funerals.

According to court documents unsealed this month, the church and three of its leaders have assets of about $1 million, including the church building and some of the homes that surround it in Topeka. According to court documents, one church leader had only $306 in her bank account.

Some of the church's critics, however, suspect Phelps and his church have more money than they let on. Attorneys for Albert Snyder, the father who successfully sued the church, have estimated in legal filings that the church likely spends $250,000 a year on travel alone.

"When you add up the number of protests they do every year across the country, it really doesn't jibe with how much they claim to have," said Snyder attorney Craig Trebilcock. His client has vowed to seek every dime of the $10.9 million ruling, even if it means seizing Westboro Baptist Church itself.

Westboro members are characteristically defiant. The lawsuit, says Fred Phelps' daughter Margie Phelps, a church leader, will go down as just another failed attempt to muzzle the church.

"We've been beaten, we've been prosecuted, we've been sued," she said. "Any pressure you can bring to bear on human beings, they've tried it. We have not stopped. We will not stop."

The Phelps compound sits on a block in a quiet residential neighborhood in west Topeka.

A common fence runs from house to house, creating a common space in the middle and severing Westboro from the rest of the world.

The small church boasts an upside-down American flag (a traditional signal of distress, co-opted by Phelps) and a giant "godhatesamerica.com" banner. A few weeks ago, a vandal painted "God hates intolerance" on the nearby fence.

Almost all of the church's 71 members are related by blood or marriage to Phelps' family. Phelps and his wife had 13 children, nine of whom remain loyal to their father and his church, which is not affiliated with any Baptist organization. Those children married into the handful of other families in the church and produced dozens of grandchildren.

The children go to public school, participate in athletics and play musical instruments. They also hold signs and sing songs ("God Hates America," "Oh Wicked Land of Sodomites") at protests.

"I have 11 (kids)," said Shirley Phelps-Roper. "My sister has four, and my brother has nine. - There's cross country and piano lessons and saxophone lessons. We live like everyone lives."

With a critical exception: They live to advance the cause of one of the most disliked men in America.

Fred Phelps Sr. was born in 1929 in Meridian, Miss. He was an Eagle Scout and could have gone to West Point, his family said, but chose the seminary instead. As a young preacher, he was profiled in Time magazine for a crusade against heavy petting.

Phelps did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.

He moved to Topeka in 1954 when Westboro was a church like many others. In 1964, he received his law degree from Washburn University and made a name for himself by filing civil-rights lawsuits. He won praise from NAACP officials, one of whom likened Phelps to Martin Luther King Jr.

Phelps also filed suits that attracted attention. In the 1980s, he sued President Ronald Reagan for sending an ambassador to the Vatican. The case never went to trial.

Phelps was disbarred from state courts in 1979 after an incident that began when he sued a court reporter who he argued had failed to hand over a court transcript on time. Phelps demanded $22,000 in damages, and subjected the woman to a cross-examination that lasted for most of a week, according to press coverage of the event. The Kansas Supreme Court later said that Phelps had carried out a "personal vendetta."

Phelps seemingly always craved publicity. He ran for Kansas governor as a Democrat in the '90s and launched other failed bids for the U.S. Senate and the Topeka mayor's office.

As Phelps grew older, his children stepped forward to lead the day-to-day activities of the church. All have law degrees, and most are practicing attorneys. The family has its own law firm.

Several children have worked for state or local government. Margie Phelps works at the state Department of Corrections. The Kansas Correctional Association gave her an award two years ago for outstanding work.

Details of Westboro's finances - how it make its money, whether it gets outside contributions, and how much it spends on national protests - are murky. As a church, Westboro pays no taxes and is largely exempt from IRS regulation.

Court records indicate, however, that the church and its members are hardly getting rich off the family church. Rebekah Phelps-Davis, one of three church members named in the lawsuit, had only $306 in her bank account, according to the records. Fred Phelps had less than $1,000. All three church leaders named in the lawsuit had credit card debt.

According to those records, total assets of Phelps, his two daughters and the church amount to nearly $1 million. The church property is worth $442,800. Cars, homes and a small amount of cash make up the rest.

The church's income comes from its members, leaders say.

"We live sober, modest lives, and our goal is to serve God," said Margie Phelps. "We're thankful for what he provides."

The family's lawyers have made hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees from lawsuits they have won, sometimes against local and state government. The church has made money in other ways, too. For several years in the 1970s, Phelps sent his children to sell candy door to door as far away as Kansas City.

One of Fred Phelps' daughters, Dortha, broke with her family and changed her last name to Bird in 1990. She said she no longer speaks to anyone at Westboro. A practicing attorney in Topeka, Bird said she wouldn't underestimate the church's financial resources.

"Every adult there is capable of making an income," she said. "They're basically an army of attorneys. They're intelligent, resourceful and capable. And they tithe; 10 percent of everyone's income goes to the church. If they've been tithing this whole time, for years, that would add up."

Church leaders won't say how much they spend attending protests across the country. Each member pays his own way, said Shirley Phelps-Roper, and they've become adept at finding travel deals for last-minute flights and car rentals.

In legal filings, attorneys for Snyder estimated that the travel costs could amount to as much as $250,000 a year.

Church leaders insist they don't take contributions. They get offers, they say, but all are refused.

Longtime foes of Westboro don't buy that.

"There's no question about it, they've got to have contributors out there," said former Kansas attorney general Bob Stephan, whose political future was left tattered after the Phelpses prompted a perjury investigation and later an indictment against him in 1992. A U.S. District Court jury found Stephan not guilty in 1995, but damage already had been done to a man many thought would one day be governor.

Another favorite Westboro target also thinks the family takes contributions.

"This is how they make a living," said Jerry Berger, an attorney and restaurant owner.

Westboro started protesting Berger's restaurant more than a decade ago when they learned he employed a lesbian. One protest turned physical when Berger and others confronted the pickets. A fistfight ensued. Several Westboro protesters went to the hospital.

It only spurred Phelps on. Church members protested Berger's restaurant almost every day for the next decade.

It's not just homosexuals and families of fallen soldiers who have felt Phelps' scorn. Over the years, Westboro has condemned the pope, Jerry Seinfeld, Santa Claus, Mister Rogers and the entire nation of Sweden.

Church members praised the Sept. 11 attacks, said Amish children deserved to die in a school shooting last year, and thanked God for the 2004 tsunami.

But it's the military funeral protests that fully aroused the anger of a nation and gave most Americans outside Topeka their first taste of Westboro Baptist Church.

Topeka Mayor Bill Bunten said he routinely contacts the mayors of towns targeted by Westboro to explain, to warn.

"I hope this (lawsuit) is the beginning of the end," he said.

Stephan isn't so hopeful. Just as fists failed to stop Westboro, so too have lawsuits, arrests, prayer vigils and national disgust.

"I think we're stuck with them for eternity," he said.

Over the years Westboro's members have been arrested and sued, to little avail. The church has been vandalized, its Web site hacked. A woman once drove her pickup into a pile of Westboro's infamous picket signs. She was acquitted of criminal charges.

City, state and federal officials have passed laws - ranging from funeral protest bans to laws making harassment by fax machine a crime - but then the church has shifted tactics. Over time, lawmakers became cautious. They didn't want to pass laws and then have to pay the Phelpses' legal fees when the laws were struck down.

In most cases, funeral picketing bans have had little effect on the church's activities. Leaders say they know the laws and how to keep their protests from violating them.

Nebraska is the latest state to attempt to rein in the protesters. Shirley Phelps-Roper is charged with flag mutilation and negligent child abuse there after a funeral protest in Bellevue, Neb. Prosecutors filed charges after she allowed her son, 10, to stand on a U.S. flag during the protest.

Phelps-Roper scoffs at the charges. "It's the law of the land," she said. "You can not only stand on the flag, you can burn it."

So far, the few times Westboro has bowed to pressure and canceled a protest have come when it was offered publicity in exchange. When Westboro announced plans to protest the funerals of the slain Amish children in Pennsylvania, a radio host offered the church free airtime if the protest was called off.

The Rev. Timmy Gibson, pastor at Olathe Life Fellowship Church, hopes he may have another way of stopping Phelps, or at least countering his message. He plans a rally in Topeka next month in which attendees will hold signs that read "God Loves Everyone," and perhaps even "God Loves Fred Phelps."

"He has definitely inspired us to share our message," he said. "And that is, God loves everybody. We want everyone to be real clear on that, in case they've heard otherwise."

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