Kansas anti-gay church embarrasses Topekans

The Oakland Tribune, Nov. 4, 2002
By Melissa Evans

Say the name Fred Phelps to a resident of Topeka, Kan., and you’re likely to hear silence.

And then a sigh.

Police officers, pastors, community leaders and legislators say they are tired of being associated with the message of hate broadcast by Phelps, head of Westboro Baptist Church.

“He’s kind of put Topeka on the map,” said Jim McCollough, pastor of First Christian Church of Topeka. “But (Phelps and followers) do not represent what the city feels.”

The 72-year-old pastor is head of an anti-gay group whose members have been permanent fixtures at city parks, church services and community gatherings for the past decade.

He and a dozen followers — most of whom are family — have promised to protest this month at seven East Bay locations, including Newark Memorial High School’s performance of “The Laramie Project” on Nov. 15.

Phelps’ anti-homosexual and hate messages also have reached Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School, which will be performing “The “Laramie Project” the weekends of Nov. 15 and 24. Despite threats by Phelps and a faxed letter from the Westerboro church promising a protest of the O’Dowd production, school officials said Friday the play will go on as scheduled.

On the surface, Phelps’ group seems almost too eccentric to be taken seriously. Its Web site and unrelenting faxes declare the “eternal damnation” of just about every group imaginable: gays, Christians, Jews and African Americans.

But Topeka residents warn that Phelps is more than just a Bible-thumping zealot. He and his followers have managed to drive businesses out of town and persuade celebrities to cancel visits, and filed numerous suits against the city, including one for $7 million, according to an article published by the Southern Law Poverty Center, a national organization that tracks hate groups.

The Topeka Capital-Journal reports residents have been reluctant to disclose their names for news stories about the church for fear they will be harassed.

“For those who were not intimidated by fear, there was often a general distaste for dealing with (Westboro) and their tactics,” said Rick Musser, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas who spent a year studying Phelps.

In one incident reported by Musser in his article “Fred Phelps versus Topeka,” Westboro protesters used slurs against guests at an 86-year-old woman’s birthday party.

“One Topeka executive with international media experience once told me it made him ‘feel dirty’ even to discuss Phelps and his tactics,” Musser said.

Phelps was raised in Mississippi, where he played in the high school band and graduated with honors. He was seen as a model citizen, reports show.

He moved to Topeka in 1954 with his wife, Marge. Many of his 13 children bought homes in the same square block that since has been dubbed the Phelps Compound.

A jungle-gym for the grandchildren can be seen above a fence that surrounds the houses, setting the compound apart from the city. At the entrance is a large American flag hung upside down and a 40-foot banner insulting gays.

“The homes are modest I would say. Well kept,” Topeka resident Bill Beachy said. “People know where they are. (Residents) pretty much stay away.”

The first service at Westboro Baptist Church was held on Nov. 27, 1955, in a small chapel within the compound.

Phelps made his living as a lawyer, but reports show he had difficulty earning a law degree because he had trouble finding judges who would vouch for his good character, a requirement under Kansas law. Still, he went on to file about 400 lawsuits dealing with everything from bankruptcy to civil rights.

One of his biggest cases was in 1974 when he sued Sears for $50 million for failing to deliver a television set on time, according to a Southern Poverty Law Center article, “A City Held Hostage.” After six years of litigation, he settled for $126 and never received the TV.

Phelps and his children — 11 of whom hold law degrees — have used the courts to pay for thousands of trips across the country to protest, sources familiar with the group say.

The group counts on people getting angry at their large signs bearing anti-gay slogans. Westboro lawyers have sued numerous organizations and individuals claiming First Amendment violations, reports show.

Meanwhile, the Kansas district attorney’s office has secured only four convictions from 109 harassment and disorderly conduct complaints against Westboro protesters, according to “A City Held Hostage.”

Phelps was disbarred in 1979 by the Kansas Supreme Court for harassing a court reporter he accused of being late with a document.

In 1989 Phelps turned over his license to practice law at the federal level in 1989 — with the condition that his family members could continue practicing law.

When his law career ended, he unsuccessfully turned to politics. He ran for governor of Kansas in 1990, the U.S. Senate in 1992, Topeka mayor in 1993, and governor again in 1994. He lost in the primary each time.

Phelps and his followers call themselves “primitive Baptists.” They believe in predestination, the idea that God already has selected those who will go to heaven and that everyone else is irreversibly doomed to hell.

Their mission, members say, simply is to spread this news.

“We don’t strive to change your hearts or minds,” Phelps wrote in a letter to the Capital-Journal. “Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t make you believe the truth.

“Every person who is predestined for hell will remain in darkness.”

Westboro’s crusade started in Topeka’s Gage Park — a place they said was known for meetings of homosexuals. They soon moved to area churches, city buildings and homes, protesting funerals, weddings, birthday parties and town meetings.

Many of those who protested were not gay or even gay activists — they simply disagreed with Phelps’ message.

That trend is expected to continue when the group visits the East Bay. Two of Westboro’s scheduled stops are Bethel Christian Academy in Fremont and First Baptist Church in Newark — chosen because their pastors called Phelps’ message “appalling.”

“It’s been an ongoing saga,” said David Gaverson, Topeka’s interim city administrator. “People here try to ignore them as best they can.”

The city has had numerous legal battles with the church, trying to enact ordinances that protect residents without violating the First Amendment.

Because of Westboro, city ordinance now dictates that protests must take place across the street from churches and city buildings. The Kansas legislature also has passed a statute against fax harassment.

“All we do is make sure (Phelps) isn’t in violation of any laws,” said John Sitwell, spokesman for the Topeka Police Department. “He’s treated no different from anybody else.”

But his presence has been costly.

Poet Maya Angelou canceled an appearance in a nearby town after being threatened by Phelps’ group, according to news reports. Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway planned to add 600 jobs in Topeka, but dropped the idea after Phelps wrote a letter to the company saying Topeka was “well-known as Sodom City, U.S.A.,” reports show.

At least one positive thing has come from Phelps’ actions, residents say. The city has become unified in its opposition to the group.

Several groups have been formed to combat hate, including the Concerned Citizens of Topeka, Interfaith of Topeka and a group called Sunday in the Park Without Fred.

While Phelps seems to have toned down his rhetoric in recent years, stopping him completely would be nearly impossible, said Beachy, president of Concerned Citizens of Topeka.

“These (anti-hate) groups banded together almost overnight,” he said. “All we can do is spread a different message. All we can really do is commit ourselves to peace and justice.”

Phelps’ tactics have numbed Topeka, which only encouraged Westboro’s national campaign, Musser said.

The group claims to have staged 20,000 protests since 1991, from the East Coast to California, but it got the most notoriety at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student at the University of Wyoming who was murdered in 1998.

The group is protesting “The Laramie Project” because it focuses on the town’s reaction to Shepard’s death. Phelps’ character is even depicted in it.

A Capital-Journal reporter once asked Phelps if he worried about hurting Shepard’s family.

His response: “Yes, I worry about that. 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.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday November 7, 2002.
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