Westboro Baptist Church: Legacy of Hate

  • March 1, 2019

The Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has a well-earned reputation as one of America's most reviled hate groups. The small, virulently homophobic group stages vitriolic, highly visible protests nationwide against groups and individuals they’ve identified as supporters of “homosexuality,” or who otherwise subvert what they refer to as “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, which was founded in the 1950s, 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,” and 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, carrying signs saying, “No Fags in Heaven” and “God Hates Fags.”

WBC currently has somewhere between 70 and 80 followers, most of whom are members of the Phelps family.[1]

The group thrives on publicity; their protests attract both media attention and numerous counter-protestors.  WBC’s pickets at the funerals of soldiers, among others, have led to a push for greater privacy protections for mourners. WBC has been involved in numerous lawsuits over free speech and the right to protest, including a case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011.  (Snyder v. Phelps), in which the Justices ruled 8-1 in favor of WBC’s right to picket a military funeral.[2]

Church led by group of male elders

Fred Phelps, Sr., who died on March 19, 2014, was the patriarch and founder of WBC. Before his death, numerous media outlets reported that WBC had excommunicated Phelps in August 2013. The information 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. WBC is currently led by a group a council of elders, married men who preach in rotation and make the decisions about the group’s direction and activities. [3]

Steve Drain is now the spokesperson for the group. 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. He reportedly met the Phelps family around 2000 when he made a documentary about WBC called “Fred: The Movie,”[4] and has said that his conversations with Fred Phelps led him to join the church.  Drain now produces WBC’s’s videos, which promote the church’s teachings and often contain references to popular culture. 

High-Profile Defections

In 2012, 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. Through their communication about theological issues, Megan began questioning WBC’s teachings. Eventually, Megan and Grace left the church, and later wrote a statement apologizing for the pain they’d inflicted as part of WBC. 

Megan and Grace are not the only Phelps children who have left WBC. Shirley Phelps-Roper’s son Josh walked away in 2003, and Libby Phelps-Alvarez left the church in 2009. Steve Drain’s daughter Lauren was forced to leave WBC in 2007 when she began questioning the group’s tactics and her father discovered that she had sent an email to someone outside of the group.[5]  Many WBC members who leave the church subsequently express remorse for the hurt that WBC has caused with their protests.

Not all departures are permanent: Katherine Phelps, one of Fred Phelps’s children, returned to WBC after many years of estrangement from the group.[6]

Reaction to WBC protests

On their website, WBC claims to have held more than 63,000 picketing events in 1032 cities across the country since 1991. While it is impossible to confirm these figures, WBC has been very active. The group has targeted the funerals of American soldiers killed in battle, contending that God killed the soldiers as retribution for America’s immorality and tolerance for “homosexuality.” 

WBC has also protested at the funerals for people who have been murdered, including those who died at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June 2016,[7]  or were killed in accidents. The group also pickets the funerals of celebrities who have died, as well as cultural events including New York Fashion Week[8], the Academy Awards and the Grammys. Other targets include schools the group deems to be accepting of the LGBTQ community as well as 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 public protests, particularly at the funerals of soldiers, has prompted lawsuits against the group and legislation 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 in public spaces about a public issue does not constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress, even if the speech is “outrageous.”

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, WBC’s protests at military funerals have faced mounting difficulties.  Numerous states and localities have passed laws creating buffer zones to keep protestors at a distance from funerals, and limit protests for several hours before and after the services.

 There are also federal laws curtailing protests at funerals.  In August 2012, President Obama signed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012.  The law includes 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 challenged a number of these laws.  In 2011, WBC filed a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of a 2006 Nebraska law banning protests at funerals within 300 feet of the service, starting one hour prior to the event until two hours after the event ends. In 2016, a federal district court sided with Nebraska in the case, and in November 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up WBC’s challenge to the law.[9]

In Missouri, WBC fought an eight-year legal battle against that state’s restrictions on funeral protests.  In March 2014, a federal judge upheld Missouri’s law, which requires protestors to stay at least a football-field’s distance away from funerals and limits the times during which they can protest near the funeral site.

Westboro today

WBC has a robust social media presence and maintains numerous websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. The group continues its regular picketing campaign, protesting various events and institutions around the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] “Granddaughter of Notorious Westboro Baptist Church Founder Describes Growing Up as a ‘True Believer’: Everyone Else Is the Enemy,” Libby Phelps, AlterNet, November 5, 2018, https://www.alternet.org/2018/11/granddaughter-notorious-westboro-baptist-church-founder-describes-growing-true-believer-everyone/

 

[3] “They’re still here: The curious evolution of Westboro Baptist Church,” Religion News, July 17, 2018, https://religionnews.com/2018/07/17/theyre-still-here-the-curious-evolution-of-westboro-baptist-church/

 

 

[5] Kara O'Neill, “Family banish daughter who refuses to believe child's death is God's punishment,” , Daily Record (UK), October 20 2017, https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/family-banish-daughter-who-refuses-11377410; Rachel O’Donoghue, “How I fled from the hate-preach church,” Daily Star (UK), January 15, 2019

 

 

 

[6] Ibid (2)

[7] “Hundreds counter-protest Westboro Baptist demonstration in Orlando,” Arelis R. Hernández, Washington Post, June 18, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/06/18/hundreds-counter-protest-westboro-baptist-demonstration-in-orlando/?utm_term=.51c9e53f4dd6
 

[8] https://nypost.com/2011/09/09/westboro-baptist-church-to-protest-fashion-week/

[9] Supreme Court denies Westboro funeral protest appeal,” Constitution Daily, National Constitution Center, November 27, 2017,

 

https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/supreme-court-denies-westboro-funeral-protest-appeal