While Kansas lawmakers work on a bill to restrict picketing at funerals, three of Fred Phelps‘ children remain on the state’s payroll.
Two work for the Kansas Department of Corrections. One works for the Juvenile Justice Authority.
“It’s a big embarrassment,” said Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita , who sponsored a bill to keep protesters from funerals. “It’s a huge embarrassment.
“In fact, they kind of flaunt that they work for the state and can’t be terminated.”
Margie Phelps is director of re-entry for the Kansas Department of Corrections, where her job is protected under the Civil Service Act.
Classified employees can’t be fired except for offenses spelled out in the law, such as problems with workplace conduct and performance.
When an Eagle columnist raised the issue last summer, Margie Phelps responded that there is no crime against strong words, and that many government workers are activists on controversial topics.
“There is no inconsistency in my comfortably working with anyone, no matter his or her lifestyle, while at the same time taking a public stand against this nation’s moral decline,” she wrote.
Fred Phelps Jr., Fred Phelps’ oldest child, is a staff lawyer with the Kansas Department of Corrections.
He was suspended from practicing law for six months starting March 15, 1989, for accusing two federal judges of racial and religious prejudice. Margie, who is also a lawyer, was suspended for one year in the same case.
Fred Phelps Jr. was hired as a parole officer for the Department of Corrections in April 1991.
Now, as a staff lawyer, he is considered an “unclassified” employee and is not protected under the Civil Service Act. However, unclassified employees who are fired may sue if they believe the firing was discriminatory.
Firing someone for engaging in freedom of expression would be unlawful, said Nicole Corcoran, spokeswoman for Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
“Almost certainly termination of an unclassified employee for speech engaged in outside of work would be very problematic,” she said.
The youngest child, Abigail, works for the state’s Juvenile Justice Authority.
Cregg Hansen, a state captain of the Patriot Guard Riders, who screen funeral mourners from Phelps picketers, said the organization doesn’t like that the Phelpses hold state jobs. It is considering a petition drive against them.
Hansen said he has written Sebelius to complain but was told the state couldn’t do anything as long as the Phelpses’ picketing activities don’t affect their work.
“When you’ve got citizen tax dollars paying their wages, then they go out and do that on their off-time, I told the governor, ‘it reflects on your administration,’ ” Hansen said. “I guess they don’t think it does.”
Corcoran said the state can’t take action against the Phelpses because they don’t discuss their views on the job.
She said the Phelpses are entitled to free speech away from work.
“In this situation, although we find their personal choices despicable, we are unable to do more than voice our discomfort or disagreement,” Corcoran said.
Sebelius has been “rock solid” in her support of Kansas soldiers and their families, Corcoran said.
“She’s incredibly disappointed when the Phelps family spreads their message of hate and disrespect at what should be a time of quiet mourning and comfort,” Corcoran said. “We join the Patriot Riders in their commitment and urge all Kansans to show our sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and our communities.”
The Kansas House and Senate have passed bills limiting protest at funerals. The Senate version bans protests within 300 feet; the House, 300 yards. A committee is working out a compromise. A final vote is expected when the Legislature reconvenes April 26.
Several other Phelps children are lawyers with Phelps-Chartered, a law firm with clients outside the family.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a lawyer for Phelps-Chartered, said the family isn’t concerned that their controversial views might endanger their careers.
“God supplies our needs,” she said. “I’m not the least bit worried at any juncture about that issue.”
She said there have been three attempts to oust family members from their jobs, but she refused to discuss the attempts.
Contributing: Brent Wistrom of The Eagle