DAYTONA BEACH — The Westboro Baptists of Topeka, Kan., are infamous for celebrating calamities like the Minneapolis bridge collapse as evidence of God’s wrath on a disobedient nation.
On Sunday morning, a church family, including nine children from the ages of 5 to 21, interrupted their Florida vacation to protest outside two local churches before going on to Gainesville to picket a soldier’s funeral.
They held up signs like “God is America’s Terror” and “Soldiers die, God laughs” outside the First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach and the Basilica of St. Paul Catholic Church.
Daytona Beach police had seven officers on bicycles to keep the peace, but churchgoers either ignored the protesters or admonished them with religion of their own.
“I’ll pray for you!” a churchgoer told Shirley Phelps-Roper outside First Baptist. Without pause, Phelps-Roper, the daughter of church founder Fred Phelps, responded, “God doesn’t hear the prayers of the wicked!”
Phelps-Roper considers it a prophetic duty to urge America to repent the sin of sodomy. She wants America to make sodomy a crime again, punishable by death.
Tragedies like soldiers dying in war are signs of God’s disapproval for tolerating sin, she said.
“He’s a vengeful God,” Phelps-Roper said. “Can you say Sodom and Gomorrah?”
Richard Ellwanger said he was flattered that they were protesting First Baptist. “I think it’s terrific,” Ellwanger said. “They’re protesting what God is all about. God loves everybody. It must mean our church is doing something right.”
Phelps-Roper said her younger children “struggle” with the protests. They see the heavy police presence and wonder if something is wrong. “Children are so fundamental,” she said. “Everything is right or wrong.”
The family believes the end times are imminent and the Bible is very clear about punishing evildoers.
Rebekah Phelps-Roper, 20, who held a sign that read, “Pray for more dead kids,” said “You can’t pick what you like (out of the Bible).”
In the fall, she will begin nursing school. Rebekah sees no contradiction between a religion of vengeance and a career in health care.
“When we’re at work, we’re completely professional,” she said.
The family’s protests of military funerals have inspired legislation in more than 30 states, including Florida, to safeguard ceremonies.
Daytona Beach Police Chief Mike Chitwood noted Sunday that soldiers go to war to protect civil liberties like free speech, even the rights of the Phelps-Roper family.
“That’s terribly ironic,” he said.
The Phelps-Roper family canceled a planned protest outside the Calvary Christian Center in Ormond Beach because they were afraid they wouldn’t have time to make it to the memorial service for Army Spc. Christopher Neiburger in Gainesville.
Stephen Brewster, a spokesman for Calvary, was disappointed. “I wish they had come here instead of messing with that poor family,” he said.
Note: Non-essential paragraph removed at someone’s request.