The Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has justly earned a reputation over the years as one of America's most reviled hate groups. The small, virulently homophobic group, stages protests across the country against groups and individuals whom they think support homosexuality or otherwise subvert what they claim is God’s law. Through outrageous statements and postings on their various websites, the group lashes out at Jews, members of various Christian denominations, Muslims and people of other religions.
WBC has been in existence since the 1950s. WBC considers itself an “Old School” or Primitive Baptist Church but has no official affiliation with mainstream Baptist organizations, which have shunned the group. In 1991, WBC began holding public protests against homosexuality. WBC gained national notoriety as a hate group in 1998 when members picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man viciously attacked and murdered because of his sexuality, and held up signs saying “No Fags in Heaven” and “God Hates Fags.”
The group thrives on publicity and their protests attract both media attention and numerous counter-protestors. WBC’s pickets at the funerals of soldiers and other individuals have led to a push for greater privacy protections for mourners and to several lawsuits, including a case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011.
Fred Phelps, Sr., who died on March 19, 2014, was the patriarch and founder of WBC. Before his death, numerous media outlets reported that Phelps had been in hospice care and that WBC had excommunicated him in August 2013. The information on Phelps’ condition came from his estranged son Nate, who posted information on his father’s impending death and excommunication on Facebook.
Nate Phelps also told The Topeka Capital-Journal that WBC’s all-male board of elders had excommunicated Fred Phelps because he had supposedly advocated “a kinder approach between church members” after an alleged power struggle within the church between the board and one of Phelps’ daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper. Although Shirley is the most well-known WBC spokesperson, Nate claimed that a woman would not be allowed to head the church due to Biblical passages that refer to women’s subservience to men. Steve Drain, another spokesperson for WBC, refused to comment on whether church members had actually excommunicated the senior Phelps.
It is not clear who will now lead the church now that Fred Phelps has actually passed. Nate Phelps suggested that his brother Tim Phelps and Drain are the most obvious choices to lead the church. In comments to the media, Drain asserted that the male elders of WBC had been leading the church for some time.
Drain, one of the very few non-family members of the church, joined WBC in 2001 when he moved with his family from Florida to Topeka. Drain reportedly met the Phelps family around 2000 when he decided to make a documentary on WBC. Drain has said that his conversations with Fred Phelps led him to become part of the church. Drain has been in charge of making the group’s videos, which promote the teachings of WBC and often contain references to popular culture.
WBC is in a state of flux for other reasons as well. In March 2013, Shirley Phelps-Roper’s two daughters, Megan and Grace, left the church. Megan had been one of the main activists in the church and was in charge of its social networking sites. On Twitter she began engaging with David Abitbol, a Jewish web developer. Reportedly, through their communication about theological issues, Megan began questioning WBC’s teachings. Eventually, she and her sister decided to leave the church. After their departure, Megan and Grace wrote a statement apologizing for inflicting pain on others through WBC actions.
Megan and Grace are not the only Phelps children to leave WBC. Libby Phelps-Alvarez, another granddaughter of Fred Phelps, left the church in 2009 while Shirley Phelps-Roper’s son Josh left in 2003. In addition, Drain’s daughter, Lauren was reportedly kicked out of the church in 2007. Many WBC members who leave the church subsequently express remorse for the hurt that WBC has caused to families and communities through their protests.
Since 1991, WBC claims to have held over 52,000 pickets in 922 cities across the country. These figures are not confirmable but WBC has been very active. Its targets include the funerals of American soldiers killed in battle, as well as the funerals for people who have been murdered (particularly in notorious incidents) or killed in accidents. The group also pickets the funerals of celebrities who have died, as well as cultural events such as the Academy Awards and the Grammys. Other targets include schools the group deems to be accepting of homosexuality and Catholic, Lutheran, and other Christian institutions that WBC feels are heretical. Between 2009 and 2011, WBC focused much of its attention on picketing Jewish institutions around the country, from Israeli consulates to synagogues to Jewish community centers.
The group’s penchant for protests, particularly at the funerals of soldiers, has led to lawsuits against the group and legislation seeking to create greater privacy for mourners. The family of Matthew Snyder, a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006, sued WBC for intentional infliction of emotional distress after the group picketed Snyder’s funeral. A jury originally awarded the Snyder family $11 million in damages, but in March 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of WBC, finding that speech on public space about a public issue does not constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress, even if the speech is “outrageous.”
Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of WBC, the group has faced mounting difficulties in holding protests, particularly at soldiers’ funerals. Numerous states and localities have passed laws creating buffer zones that keep protestors at a distance from funerals, and limit protests for several hours before and after the services.
In addition to states and locales, the federal government has also passed a law curtailing protests at funerals. In August 2012, President Obama signed into law HR, 1627, the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012. The law has a provision requiring protestors to remain a certain distance from a military funeral and also bans protests two hours before and after a service.
WBC has been challenging the laws limiting protests at funerals around the country. In Missouri, for example, WBC fought an eight-year legal battle against that state’s funeral protest restrictions. In March 2014, a federal judge upheld Missouri’s law, which requires protestors to stay at least a football-field away from funerals, and limits when they can protest near the funeral site.
Fred Phelps’ death and the alleged marginalization of Shirley Phelps-Roper would certainly change the public face of the church but its tone and message will almost certainly remain the same. If there has been a power struggle within WBC, the inter-family strife may lead to a fracture within the group. Moreover, WBC may have more defectors in the future.