An overview of Phelps

Topeka Capital-Journal
By Tim Richardson

The Rev. Fred Phelps had a typical Southern upbringing in a highly respected family. Those who knew Phelps in Mississippi during his childhood say he was a model citizen. He earned the rank of Eagle Scout with Palms, played in the high school band and graduated with honors. In his graduating class of 213 students, Phelps ranked sixth and was the class orator at commencement on May 28, 1946.

He carried a strong presence into the courtroom and garnered several civil rights awards for representing minorities.

In recent years, Phelps is a changed man.

A Topeka lawyer testified in 1995 that he wanted to hit the Rev. Fred Phelps after the anti-homosexual minister directed derogatory comments at him.

Other Topekans, regardless of whether they wanted to deck the man, have noticed his presence in the community. The spotlight has expanded in recent years, bringing national attention to a controversial man with Topeka roots.

The disbarred lawyer and his clan from Westboro Baptist Church, 3701 S.W. 12th, travel the nation to picket. With signs in hand, they are often spotted at Gage Park, The Topeka Capital-Journal and other areas of town. The picketing hasn't slowed since the newspaper published a special report about the group almost a decade ago.

Phelps made headlines when he and others from WBC picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay man beaten to death in Wyoming.

"I found it almost impossible to believe that human beings could be so brutal and vicious to a hurting family," said the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Phelps says he brought "a little sanity" to Shepard's funeral.

Did he worry about hurting Shepard's family? "Yes, I worry about that," he said. "But my mom's words come back to me all the time. She'd say a little hurt now saves a big hurt later. I'm talking about living people who are headed straight for hell."

National publications have showcased Phelps in their glossy pages.

The April 1999 issue of "George" magazine featured "The 20 Most Fascinating Men in Politics." Phelps is No. 5.

"These men startle, scintillate, and shock," says the article, which has a five-sentence blurb on Phelps next to a full-page photo. "Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, they're not afraid to say the things we don't want to hear."

Phelps recently appeared in "Rolling Stone" magazine, as well. This isn't the first time Phelps has been featured nationally, but recent high-profile pickets seem to have rekindled national interest. Phelps has said he hadn't read any of the articles, but he appreciates the coverage.

In 1993, tax-payers learned they footed the $26.69-an-hour bill to protect WBC protestors.

About three years later, the State Board of Tax Appeals ruled the 1995 Ford F-150 pickup truck purchased by Phelps' church didn't qualify for a tax exemption. The ruling forced him to pay property taxes on the new blue pickup truck he uses to haul about picket signs.

The news wasn't all bad for the Phelps family.

The Kansas Court of Appeals reversed a disorderly conduct conviction of a WBC picketer, saying "it's not a crime in America to say something offensive," a church lawyer said.

A Riley County district judge signed an order saying there wasn't probable cause to issue warrants for criminal defamation against Phelps. The question of criminal defamation is linked to fax messages sent to Shawnee County Sheriff Dave Meneley.

In the second case, the court of appeals ruled that a judge made an erroneous instruction to the jury in a May 1996 trial in which Westboro member Jonathan B. Phelps was convicted of remarks allegedly made to two women.

Phelps also ran for governor of Kansas in 1990 and 1994,the U.S. Senate in 1992 and Topeka mayor in 1993, losing in the primary each time.

In 1997, then-Mayor Joan Wagnon sent an e-mail to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, where former President Bill Clinton was scheduled to attend an event.

"As Mayor of Topeka, the Capital City of Kansas and a former Little Rock resident, I want to state unequivocally, that the views of the Westboro Baptist Church and its followers are not shared by the overwhelming majority of Topeka residents," she wrote. "While we decry the message of hate and the linking of that hate message to Christian beliefs, Kansans are a tolerant people and also respect the freedom of speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights."

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