TOPEKA — Laws passed by Congress and 29 states to prevent Fred Phelps and his congregation from disrupting military funerals have not ended their protests or silenced their anti-gay message.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church here still picket at as many as three funerals a week.
President Bush signed a law on Memorial Day banning protests within 300 feet of national cemeteries. Last month, he said it “ensures that families of fallen servicemembers will not have to endure protests during military funerals.”
It hasn’t worked out that way. Phelps’ followers have picketed at 15 funerals in 13 states since Aug. 1. Ten of those states have passed laws meant to restrict the protests. Pickets even showed up Monday in Shanksville, Pa., for a 9/11 commemoration at the site where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed.
Phelps, a former civil rights lawyer who founded the unaffiliated church, says the laws are unconstitutional because they infringe on free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union is helping him challenge the laws in two states.
Phelps says he’s enjoying the ruckus. “How in the world did we get this humble message from this humble little old nothing of a church to shake the whole country up?” he asks in a recent interview.
Phelps believes the deaths of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2001 terrorist attacks are an angry God’s punishment for the country’s tolerance of homosexuality. “This nation has ticked off the Almighty, and it’s too late to repent,” he says.
The church doesn’t protest only at funerals. Robin and J.R. Knight got a visit from Phelps’ followers last month. The Knights own the Lakeway Hotel in Meade, Kan., and this summer began flying a rainbow flag along with the U.S. flag.
The Knights knew the rainbow flag can symbolize gay pride. Their 12-year-old son Anthony, who gave it to them because he liked the bright colors, did not. The flag caused a stir in the town of 1,600 even before the protests. Rocks were thrown through a window at the bed and breakfast, and the original flag was cut down; it has been replaced.
When the Phelps protesters arrived on Aug. 27, the Kansas Equality Coalition, which fights discrimination based on sexual orientation, countered by holding a meeting at the Lakeway. The Knights played music and handed out rainbow wigs to supporters. “Our thought was, this is no funeral,” Robin Knight says. “It’s sad that they’re teaching and preaching hatred.” The hotel is for sale.
Phelps grew up in Mississippi and founded his church in the 1950s. It has about 70 members, most of them from his family of 13 children, says his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper.
At 76, Phelps is sharp and defiant. Asked whether it’s a contradiction for a former civil-rights lawyer to deliver harsh judgments of gays, he says, “The Almighty never said it was an abomination to be black. Enough said.”
His voice rises, though, when he explains why he feels no empathy for mourners at military funerals. “What I’m sorry about,” he says, “is that they raised their children for the devil in hell. … I’m saying to those people, ‘If your boy, your dead soldier son, could come back to earth and talk to you, what he would tell you is, listen to Phelps.’ ”
Phelps’ followers track military deaths on the Pentagon website and pay for travel with their own money, Phelps-Roper says. They often bring their children. They send letters in advance to notify local law enforcement and stay back the required distance, she says.
Most of the state laws bar protests within 150-1,000 feet of military funerals or memorial services.
Phelps and his followers have been picketing for 16 years at schools, churches and funerals for people who died of AIDS. They were at the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay student who was murdered in Wyoming. They were at a memorial service for men who died in a West Virginia mine accident in January.
Their first protest at a military funeral was in June 2005. So far, there have been 162 such protests.
Soldier’s mother outraged
Linda Morrison had been warned that Phelps’ followers would protest at the memorial service in December for her son, a medic killed in Iraq. She was outraged when the small group showed up with signs reading “America is Doomed” and chanting “God hates fags.”
“I was furious at the things they were saying,” says Morrison, whose son, Army Staff Sgt. Gary Harper of Virden, Ill., died when Iraqi insurgents ambushed his unit. “I had more pity for them than anything, that they could actually believe anything like that.”
Patriot Guard Riders, a national organization of 53,000 motorcycle riders that includes many veterans, formed last year to shield mourners from the Phelps contingent. They were at Harper’s service, after getting the family’s permission.
Cliff Leach, a Vietnam veteran from Elkhorn, Neb., who heads his state’s Patriot Guard chapter, has been at 13 funerals. “This is the worst time in those families’ lives,” he says, “and I want to do anything I can to make it easier.”
The ACLU is challenging laws restricting Phelps and his followers in Ohio and Missouri. Tony Rothert of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, says the laws limit speech and must be fought to protect everyone’s rights. “Today it’s a group we don’t like. Tomorrow it could be us that are silenced,” he says.
“Our client is the Bill of Rights,” says Jeff Gamso, legal director of the Ohio ACLU.
Steve McAllister, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Kansas, says the Supreme Court “has never really approved a buffer of any significance” for protesters. If the laws are thrown out, Phelps could be awarded attorneys’ fees, he says.
McAllister says Phelps’ followers might actually win twin victories: “The government may end up paying these people … and government attention to this issue has given the Phelpses more attention than they ever dreamed of.”