TOPEKA, Kan. — After a 15-year barrage of protests, name-calling and intimidation, folks in this normally quiet Midwestern city are fighting back against the tactics of the virulently anti-gay ministry of the Westboro Baptist Church.
An unlikely band of residents here — gay and straight, liberal and conservative, religious and non-believer — is standing up to Pastor Fred Phelps and his 100-member flock, who have waged rhetorical war against everyone they perceive as enemies.
Among Westboro’s enemies: gays and anyone who doesn’t hate them; AIDS victims and their families; Presidents Bush, Clinton and Reagan; the U.S. military and the police; judges and politicians; evangelist Billy Graham, “Focus on the Family” icon James Dobson, the religious right and most other clergy; the nation of Sweden; and anyone who doesn’t interpret the Bible exactly the way it’s filtered through the old time, fires-of-hell pulpit of Pastor Phelps.
Phelps believes gays deserve to die. Anyone who shows kindness to gays, he says, deserves even worse.
And the rest of the world? Well, in Phelps’ view, its ticket already has been punched and a righteous smiting is on its way.
While gay marriage bans have been on the political front burner since President Bush proposed a constitutional amendment that would outlaw the practice, Phelps has been preaching intolerance of homosexuals for decades. Kansas last week joined 13 other states in enacting a gay marriage ban. A similar law is under consideration in Texas and three other states.
“If you want to know who’s going to hell,” says the steely-eyed 72-year-old firebrand, “it’s whoever is fighting Phelps.”
That disturbs plenty of Topeka residents.
“It’s a big family,” Topeka City Council member Charles Duffy says of the church, “that’s made a going concern of being a small hate group.”
Topeka residents say they’ve been held hostage in their own city, fearful that crossing Phelps or disputing his apocalyptic vision — a world of sodomites facing eternal judgment from a wrathful God — would result in pickets, verbal abuse or a massive smear campaign broadcast around the world via fax and Internet.
Last week’s returns sent the clear message that Kansas isn’t San Francisco, but residents here say opposition to Phelps’ tactics has grown.
Voters in March turned back a Phelps-crafted initiative and upheld the city’s right to pass laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. In that same election, Phelps’ granddaughter received only 202 votes in a four-candidate field for the City Council, placing last in a field that included incumbent Tiffany Muller, who ultimately lost to newcomer Richard Harmon in last week’s run-off.
An organization called Concerned Citizens for Topeka has garnered support from liberal and moderate clergy, mainstream businessmen and government officials who see Phelps’ constant badgering as harmful to the city.
And now, there are cracks in the facade of support among local conservative clergy. In the past, they’ve supported Phelps’ theological stand against homosexuality as a sin. Now, even they are getting cold feet because of the church’s persistent and abusive attacks on everyone who isn’t part of Westboro.
Westboro Baptist is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based civil rights organization that monitors extremist groups nationwide.
“Phelps and his church,” says the center’s Mark Potok, “have had that city by the throat for years.”
Phelps says he’s just exercising his constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but few people exercise them the way Westboro does.
Regular weapons in the Westboro picketing arsenal include placards with messages such as “Your Pastor is a Whore,” “God Hates You,” “Two Gay Rights: AIDS and Hell,” “Fags Die, God Laughs” and the ubiquitous “God Hates Fags.”
Westboro members have picketed church services, holiday parades and funerals for President Clinton’s mom and Matthew Shepard, a gay man beaten to death in Wyoming.
The group came to San Antonio four years ago to protest then-Sheriff Ralph Lopez’s public support of a deputy who wanted a sex-change operation.
They picket events all over Topeka. They even picketed Sesame Street Live and a children’s production of “The Nutcracker Suite” ballet.
“If there’s anything that constitutes a public forum,” Duffy says, “he’ll find a way to denigrate it.”
Phelps estimates the church has staged more than 20,000 protests.
“The joke we have,” says the Rev. Susan Candea, pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, “is that if you’re going somewhere, you know you’re in the right place if you see the pickets.”
Jokes aside, a growing number of townspeople say they’ve had enough.
“Fred stands against everything I stand for,” said Otto Schnellbacher, a legendary Kansas University football and basketball star and now a retired businessman. “I think he embarrasses the city.”
“We have to make a stand against sin in our community,” said the Rev. Anthony Drivers of Inward Faith church, “but the Bible tells us to be wise as a serpent and as meek as a dove. We have to draw people to us, not drive them away.”
Phelps doesn’t care. To him, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the Indian Ocean tsunami were acts of Biblical retribution delivered by an angry God.
“It is a matter of supreme irrelevance to me,” the pastor says with a shrug. “The effect of this preaching on human hearts is exclusively the prerogative of God almighty.”
The war over Westboro is waged on the same streets that gave birth to Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1955 civil rights case that outlawed segregation in American public schools with the finding that separate education facilities were inherently unequal.
And Phelps, surprisingly, was part of that fight.
A Mississippi native, he came to Topeka to pastor the newly formed Westboro congregation shortly after the decision.
Phelps saw the fight for civil rights as a logical extension of his ministry, so he earned a law degree and began taking on discrimination cases across the Midwest.
Phelps was so successful, the Bonner Springs Branch of the National Association For the Advancement of Colored People honored him for his efforts.
“Even though members of the establishment have attacked from every side,” reads the plaque he received in the mid-1980s, “you have remained undaunted and never lost your spark and steely determination for justice”
One of the pastor’s critics sees that as a stunning inconsistency in Phelps’ body of public work.
“No one can take from him that he has done good in his life,” said Pedro Irigonegaray, a Topeka attorney. “But the heart of a true civil rights lawyer lies square in the proposition that all people are created equal.”
Says Phelps, explaining his defense of blacks and his attacks on gays: “God Almighty never said that it’s an abomination to be black.”
Phelps went to court with the same confrontational attitude that he brought to the pulpit, and ultimately he ran afoul of the legal community.
The Kansas Supreme Court disbarred him in 1979. A decade later, he was facing disciplinary action from federal courts in Kansas when he surrendered his law license.
Many other family members, however, remained in the law business. Fifteen siblings or in-laws are licensed attorneys and Phelps Chartered continues to practice in Topeka.
Birth of a war
The end of Phelps’ legal career coincided with the beginning of the pickets.
Jerry Palmer, an attorney who has faced Westboro in court over its intimidation tactics, suspects the two developments are connected.
“My basic view is that Fred’s a narcissist,” Palmer says. “When he lost the ability to file lawsuits, he began picketing to feed his urges.”
Phelps disagrees, calling the timing a coincidence. He attributed his change in direction to a very specific series of events during that same time period.
Family members jogging in the late afternoon or on weekends in the neighborhoods around their home noticed gay couples using nearby Gage Park as a meeting place. Some, Phelps said, were engaging in sex acts in the open.
What happened next shaped the war of wills that has continued for 15 years.
After years of trying to work through police, park and city officials, Phelps said, the church took to the streets. Church members picketed the park, holding small, handwritten signs bearing the simple statement:
“Watch Your Kids. Gays in RRs”
After a few weekends of Westboro protests, counter-protesters began to confront them, shouting them down and trying to provoke physical conflict.
Some counter-protesters even began sporting “Sundays in the Park Without Fred” T-shirts.
Among them were representatives from churches around the city, including those from St. David’s Episcopal Church. When Westboro picketed St. David’s, the Episcopal Church responded in kind, picketing Westboro and holding signs that read “God is Love.”
The war had begun.
It was still going strong on a recent rainy Tuesday morning at Southwest 17th Street and Gage, where St. David’s is located.
At 11:30 a.m., as they have every weekday for more than 14 years, a carload of Westboro members — mainly children — descended on the sidewalks and took their places ringing the intersection.
St. David’s, a 1950s-era stone building with white crosses in the front yard to symbolize soldiers killed in Iraq, is one of two locations Westboro pickets every day.
The other target is a Topeka restaurant, which first earned Westboro’s attention by employing a lesbian manager. When the owner sent his bouncers out to rough up Westboro protesters during a 1993 picket — putting eight Westboro members in the hospital — the eatery earned a permanent spot at the top of Phelps’ list.
As the church members fanned out on this morning — each holding one or more professional-looking, rainbow-colored signs — a yellow pickup sped by on Gage. The driver shouted a profanity and flashed an obscene gesture at the group, none of whom reacted.
“We ignore it,” says Tim Phelps, the pastor’s son, and one of the few adults present, “unless a projectile’s coming.”
Phelps’ indifference is shared by motorists who, beyond the truck driver, ignore the pickets.
Despite the venomous messages they carry, the children picketing St. David’s were polite, pleasant and appeared happy.
To some, that’s even more disturbing than their signs.
“Look at the Hitler youth,” Irigonegaray quipped. “They were young and beautiful, too.”
St. David’s was one of Phelps’ first targets, and the church was one of the first to successfully rein in Westboro’s members.
Jerry Palmer represented St. David’s in a lawsuit to keep Westboro pickets from interrupting funerals, church services and other activities.
Palmer was able to secure a temporary restraining order that keeps Westboro protestors 90 feet from the church grounds 30 minutes before, during, and 30 minutes after worship services.
That “temporary” order has been in place 12 years.
Since then, state and local lawmakers have tried other means to corral Westboro. In Kansas, for example, thanks to the backlash against Westboro, a law prohibits picketing funerals.
Beyond the anger of the driver of the yellow truck, the picket went off without incident. Twenty minutes after they arrived, one of the adults blew a whistle and, without a word, the children and adults quickly and quietly left the scene, returning to the church, located a few blocks away.
For years now, daily protests have merited no media coverage. When Westboro staged the most recent version of its annual Palm Sunday protest — picketing and heckling during a multi-denominational recreation of Christ’s triumphant arrival in Jerusalem — a front-page story in the local paper didn’t even mention Westboro.
This infuriated Phelps.
“We were the whole story,” he says of the Palm Sunday story in the paper. “We were there tongue-lashing the lot of them.”
On the Web
The church operates several Web sites that echo the messages displayed at pickets. The main site draws up to 50,000 visitors a day. Church members, in a film documentary on the congregation, say it’s under constant attack from hackers.
On a page that hurls invective at Sweden as a “land of bestiality, and incest and sodomy,” there’s a cautionary note at the bottom: “If you have something relevant to say (and cuss words are not relevant, you tolerant, loving, Sodomite Swede), contact us (via email).”
Another page touts the Westboro version of “God Bless America”: “God hates America / home of the fags. / He abhors them / deplores them / day and night / all his might / all his day”
Then there’s the Westboro fax campaign, where public officials, clergy and anyone in Westboro’s way gets lambasted in massive, citywide dispatches.
“It was pretty vicious stuff,” says Palmer. “In the beginning, everyone was wary of what would be coming next. After a while, after everyone in town had been labeled ‘a fag,’ we stopped taking it too seriously. Most people look upon it as pretty ludicrous now.”
Irigonegaray says Topeka has been especially thick-skinned about Westboro’s activities, adding that in many other communities, more violence would have been directed against church members.
Phelps disputes the notion that his church has gotten off easily.
The church has videotaped dozens of scenes of frustrated counter-protesters physically attacking Westboro picketers.
Besides the restaurant altercation, 17 attacks — such as broken glass and graffiti — have been reported on church property.
It’s gotten more serious, including an incident where shots were fired at a church wall and another in which a bomb was detonated near the front door of the home of daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper in 1995.
No one was injured. Phelps offered a $5,000 reward that led to one arrest and one conviction on minor charges.
That left Phelps incensed.
“Do I have to tell you what would happen if we set off a bomb at one of these fag churches?” Phelps asks.
Phelps preaches in a church that sits on a residential block where several of his children live in neighboring and adjacent houses. The U.S., Canadian, Kansas and city of Topeka flags wave overhead. The U.S. and Canadian flags fly upside down, Phelps says, to signify two nations in distress.
Despite the constant turmoil, Phelps says everything is going the way he wants.
He is not here to make people happy. He’s here to deliver the word of God and that word, Phelps says, isn’t good news for modern man.
“It is my job to make these people mad as hell,” he says. “It is my job to harden their hearts. It is my job to blind their eyes and it is my job to stop up their ears.”
Phelps preaches to a full house of 100 people a week, most of them from his family of 13 children, 53 grandchildren, and assorted in-laws.
Phelps and his members have occasionally picketed other places for other reasons, but he says homosexuality is the root of most evil because it’s the sin for which there is no repentance.
He justifies use of the term “fag” as having Biblical origins — a faggot is another name for a stick. In the Bible, faggots were used as a metaphor.
“It’s an elegant word,” Phelps says. “Just as literal faggots fuel the fires of nature, so do these faggots fuel the fire of God’s anger.”
Once a society decides to accept “the abomination” of homosexuality — he refuses to call it a “lifestyle” — then that culture has made a conscious decision to burn in hell.
As much as he despises gays, Phelps despises other clergy even more. He calls them false prophets for espousing the concept that God “hates the sin, but loves the sinner.”
“That’s a lie out of hell,” Phelps says. “Does the judge send the crime or the criminal to jail? Does God send the sin or the sinner to hell? Every one of these preachers is irrevocably bound for hell.”
It’s tough talk, and it’s a burden Phelps joyfully carries.
“Who’s supposed to (deliver that message) if it isn’t an old time preacher?” Phelps asks. “My business is to teach this stuff without any timidity and with boldness and without a hint of ambiguity.”
Topeka, however, isn’t backing down.
“For years, people have just watching and ignored him” said Schnellbacher. “That’s sad. We can’t pretend they’re not there, because they are there.”
“If you don’t oppose hate,” Irigonegaray said, “you endorse hate.”
Westboro’s campaign against gays, he said, has galvanized hundreds in this Middle American town.
“When you see a former radical, hippy lawyer like me and a guy like (Schnellbacher) on the same side,” Irigonegaray said, “that should tell you something.”
Phelps has made Topeka sit up and take notice of its own attitudes.
“I thank Fred Phelps for teaching Topeka about tolerance,” said Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “He has done more for teaching tolerance than anyone in the history of Kansas.”
Concerned Citizens for Topeka is looking for ways to open communications between groups that haven’t been on speaking terms before.
For example: Evangelical ministers — who have toed an anti-gay line all along — don’t want to be associated with Phelps.
“Find some Biblical support for Phelps’ views that God hates people,” said the Rev. E. Alan Benson, local NAACP head and pastor at Asbury Mt. Olive Church. “There is none. It is incompatible with the word of God.”
Adds Andrew McHenry, minister at Maple Hill Community Congregational Church: “It completely jaundices the word of God.”
Even the Rev. Edward Kirtdoll of Fellowship Church Baptist Chapel — who agrees with most of Phelp’s rhetoric and tactics — refers to the picketing of AIDS victims’ funerals as “stupid.”
Phelps doesn’t care.
“You’re all going to hell,” he says, repeating the message he delivers daily. “There is nothing you can do about it.”
“Have a nice day.”