Westboro Baptist Church, here we come. Last month, a colleague at a well-known online publication reached out with a potential offer for some freelance work: The notorious anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church had announced its intention to picket outside the San Francisco office of Reddit.com, and the website’s usual Bay Area reporter was expected to be tied up with some other work.
The Westboro Baptist Church was not a name unfamiliar to me: The 50-or-so member church is notorious for picketing outside the funerals of AIDS patients and fallen U.S. troops. Its name invokes mental images of white middle-America men, women and children — many of whom are the direct descendants of the church’s now-deceased leader Fred Phelps — protesting on the street corners of suburban towns while holding handmade, fluorescent-colored signs bearing offensive messages such as “America is Doomed,” “Priests Rape Boys” and “God Hates Fags,” the latter of which has become the group’s sui generis slogan.
About a week earlier, I had heard about Westboro Baptist’s plans to picket Reddit and several other San Francisco-based tech companies as part of the group’s current nationwide anti-media tour (which apparently includes social media companies and was, ironically, announced on social media). I considered then whether to cover the protest for TheBlot Magazine, independently or for another site, and ultimately decided against it.
If you only had a slight understanding of Westboro Baptist leader Fred Phelps in the 1960s, you might actually consider him to be an honorable man. Back then, the Mississippi-born man was a budding civil rights attorney in Topeka, Kan., where he opened his own law firm representing several African-Americans he considered to be victims of social injustices.
“I knew it was wrong the way those black people were treated,” Phelps said in a 1994 interview. “I instinctively knew it was against the word of God.”
His work as a civil-rights attorney earned him many accolades, including one from a local branch of the NAACP. But as noble as his intentions may have seemed, Phelps was likely motivated to take those cases by another factor: Money.
In one civil case, he represented a former schoolgirl who sued the city of Topeka alleging she had received an inferior education because of the color of her skin. With Phelps by her side, his client secured a $19,500 out-of-court settlement from the Topeka Board of Education. For her case, Phelps charged her $11,000 in attorney’s fees.
In Topeka, Phelps already had a bad reputation — but his reputation among the locals pre-dated his profit machine disguised as philanthropy. Instead, residents there already saw Phelps the way the rest of the world eventually would: As an fervent hate-monger.
Before law school, Phelps took his anti-homosexual religious rhetoric to the airwaves where he delivered a weekly sermon on local radio. A group of attorneys familiar with his program tried to block Phelps’ admission to the state bar shortly after he graduated law school. He later had difficulty trying to find a judge in town who would swear to his good character, a routine prerequisite for bar admission in most states.
Phelps eventually proved his character by submitting a letter of commendation from former President Harry S. Truman, as well as merit badges from his time as an Eagle Scout in Mississippi. It was just enough to get him admitted to the state bar in 1964.
On the path to disbarment
It only took five years for Phelps’ reputation to catch up with the broader legal community. Regulators began investigating Phelps on seven counts professional misconduct in 1969. Though they sought to disbar Phelps, the Kansas Supreme Court chose to suspend him after setting aside four of the seven counts.
Five years later, the state would seek full disbarment on its own after Phelps tried to sue a court reporter for $22,000 over alleged fraud and misrepresentation.
According to court documents, Phelps told court reporter Carolene Brady he had wanted to file a lawsuit against her for “a long time.” During the ensuing trial, Phelps cross-examined Brady for at least three days in a manner the Kansas Supreme Court said was “abusive, repetitive, irrelevant and represented a classic case of ‘badgering’ a witness.” The jury found in favor of Brady, enraging Phelps, who immediately demanded a new trial.
In his demand, Phelps told the court that several witnesses would testify about Brady’s reputation. When Brady obtained sworn affidavits from eight of those witnesses who sided with her, the state declared Phelps’ crusade against the court reporter to be “unnecessary public ridicule for which there is no basis for fact.”
After 15 years as a state attorney, Phelps was disbarred on July 20, 1979. He would continue practicing law in federal courts, representing himself and other clients in various civil lawsuits, until disciplinary action against himself and five of his family members — all attorneys — forced him to surrender his law license entirely in 1989.
Just two years later, Phelps would focus his goals on what would eventually become his biggest money-making operation: As the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Building the voice of generations
Phelps began his religious service as an associate pastor of the East Side Baptist Church in 1954. The pastor of East Side Baptist looked beyond what Phelps had to say on the radio, impressed instead with his impassioned style of delivery. Shortly after joining East Side Baptist, Phelps ended his program.
With a growing congregation, the church split its services one year later between East Side Baptist and a new satellite operation on the west side of town. Phelps was promoted to the position of pastor at the newly formed Westboro Baptist, where he delivered sermons on the weekend while working as a vacuum cleaner and insurance salesman.
Phelps continued to serve as the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church after becoming a civil rights attorney in 1964. His sermons at the church often contrasted with his civil rights work; members referred to his anti-homosexual rants as “militant,” though his teachings rarely reverberated outside the four walls of the church.
That changed shortly after Phelps was ordered to stop practicing law altogether. In 1991, he somehow learned that a local park had gained a reputation for being a cruising site popular with gay men. The recreation area, Gage Park, was just six blocks from the church.
“I remember the day well when my family discussed the possibility of picketing,” former church member Libby Phelps-Alvarez, who was eight at the time, wrote for the website XOJane. “I could tell a serious discussion was taking place by their hushed sounds, as they didn’t want the children to hear exactly what was going on.”
The first picket session took place after a Sunday sermon. Phelps, armed with several of his children and grandchildren, stood in the park with handmade signs warning parkgoers that gay men were lurking about.
“Watch Your Kids! Gays in Restrms,” the first sign read.
“I was told (Phelps) wanted to clean up the park for him and his grandchildren to enjoy it,” Phelps-Alvarez wrote. “My family initially thought other churches would see the problem and come on board and help with the picketing. The opposite happened. They started preaching against the signs. So my family started picketing local churches regularly.”
Center of attention
By then, Phelps’ incendiary rhetoric had been heard loud and clear by the other churches in town. It was enough for East Side Baptist to sever all ties with Westboro Baptist and others churches followed suit. It also caught the attention of the Topeka Capital-Journal, where reporters filed several profiles on Phelps and his congregation in 1994.
The attention started having a detrimental effect on the law firm that bore the Phelps’ surname. His children, all attorneys, began having trouble finding clients to represent. To make ends meet, members of the Phelps family started filing lawsuits as the Westboro Baptist Church against the City of Topeka for failing to provide adequate protection at rallies. In 1995, the Phelps sued the state of Kansas for passing an anti-picketing law that they claimed infringed on their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
It didn’t take long for Phelps to realize that preaching Westboro Baptist’s message of hate — and suing anyone who dared to stand in his church’s way — was an easy way to make some money. He also realized there’s a limit to just how often you can sue a community like Topeka before the kitty runs dry. With that in mind, he set his church on a course to revolt the nation —and he would do just that following the death of a 21-year-old gay man just two states away.
Capitalizing on tragedy
Aaron Kreifels thought he had come upon a scarecrow tied to a fence during a recreational cycle through the plains of Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998. It was only upon closer inspection that he saw blood glistening from the face of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, who had been robbed and assaulted some 18 hours earlier.
Shortly after the attack, police arrested two men on suspicion of murder. Prosecutors alleged that the men had pretended to be gay in order to coax Shepard into their truck so they could rob him. After the robbery, both men pistol-whipped Shepard so hard that his skull fractured, causing blood to gush from his head and wash over his face. The only part of his face that was clean, it was reported, is where Shepard’s tears had pushed the blood away.
One man plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence on agreement that he would testified against his co-conspirator; a jury convicted the second man at trial. Both received life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole.
Shepard died five days after the attack. The brutal beating gained international attention, sparking discussion about violence against gays and prompting activists to call on legislators to amend existing hate laws to include protections on the basis of sexual orientation.
Shepard’s death set the stage for a new equal-rights movement in the country. It also caught the attention of the Westboro Baptist Church. As part of their anti-homosexual crusade, the Phelps family had earlier expanded their picketing to target the funerals of individuals who had died from AIDS. Shepard became a target after media reports surfaced that the man had been diagnosed with HIV.
The church made good on its plans, and a global press already on hand to cover the trial of Shepard’s murderers focused its attention on the hate group. For days, images of Phelps and his congregation holding signs that read “Fag Matt in Hell” and “No Tears for Queers” flooded the front pages and the airwaves. The world was simultaneously disgusted and captivated. Fred Phelps could not have been more delighted — his church had secured the attention he craved.
New millennium, new hatemongering
The problem with picketing the funerals of AIDS patients in the late 1990s and early 2000s is that there suddenly became fewer and fewer of them. The rate of HIV/AIDS infections, while still troublesome, began to decline thanks in part to breakthroughs in anti-viral medications and better sex education.
With less AIDS patients to target, Westboro Baptist Church found fewer places to demonstrate. And with fewer demonstrations, the media attention started to lapse. The church quickly realized it had to find another thing to hate on if it expected to survive.
The answer came on Sept. 11, 2001 when 19 Middle-Eastern terrorists hijacked and crashed four airplanes into three landmarks as well as a field in rural Pennsylvania. The church seized on the moment to proclaim that the terrorist attack was God’s wrath against a country that openly embraced homosexuals. Shortly after the attack, the elderly Phelps ordered the American flag be flown upside-down outside the church’s building, something that made one local resident “snap.”
“That drove me over the edge,” 19-year-old Topeka resident Jared Dailey said. “I just said to myself, ‘You know, he shouldn’t do that today. I’m going to go do something that I’ve always wanted to do for a while and stand across the street from that guy.'”
Dailey stood outside the church with an American flag and a plywood sign that read, “Not today, Fred.” The next day, the teen was joined by more than 100 people.
If the Phelps family did any counter-protesting, it didn’t receive much attention. But the media blackout on the Westboro Baptist Church wouldn’t last long — the cameras and microphones of the world’s journalists would once again be trained on Fred Phelps and his clan shortly after the war on terrorism began.
In 2005, the Associated Press thrust the Westboro Baptist Church back into the global spotlight when it profiled the church’s intentions to picket the funeral of Cpl. Carrie French, who was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) while serving a tour of duty in Iraq.
“What Phelps is doing is a reprehensible thing, to take a funeral and turn it into a photo op for his hate cause,” Rev. Brian Fischer said of the church’s plan. “We hope everyone will ignore Phelps’ group.”
But his group was not ignored. Dozens of reporters covered the picket in Boise. When the nation reacted with outrage and contempt, the church planned several more protests in Alabama, Colorado, Michigan and Virginia. Following the demonstration at French’s funeral, Westboro Baptist set its sights on Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the bodies of fallen soldiers first land in the United States before they are transported to their final resting places.
The father of one such soldier, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, did not take kindly to Phelps’ presence at his son’s funeral. In 2006, Albert Snyder filed suit against Phelps and the church for defamation of character and emotional distress. At trial, a jury awarded Snyder a total of $10.9 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
A small victory against the church that would not last.
The Phelps’ filed an appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court. The court found in favor of the church and tossed out the jury’s award. To add insult upon injury, the appellate court ordered Snyder to pay the Phelps’ more than $16,000 in attorney’s fees.
The case was ultimately taken to the Supreme Court, where justices had to determine whether a private person or group could be awarded damages based on another private person’s outrageous freedom of speech and expression with regard to a private matter.
Backed by the press
The press overwhelmingly supported the Phelps family in their crusade — more than 20 media organizations, including National Public Radio, the Associated Press, the Tribune Company, Bloomberg and The New York Times, signed off on an amicus brief in support of the Westboro Baptist Church. The press argued that Snyder was not entitled to damages because the church’s activities were protected under the First Amendment. And by his own admission, Snyder hadn’t actually seen the picket at his son’s military funeral; he would only learn of the Westboro Baptist Church’s demonstration when he saw news reports about it several hours later, the press said.
Several cities and states have since enacted laws that place restrictions on where and when the Westboro Baptist Church and its ilk can picket, especially when it comes to funerals. When it can, the group sues where it feels it can prove its freedom of speech has been infringed upon. And where it can’t, the church finds other things to picket.
“When you look at the places WBC picketed, it seems as if church members are continually compelled to find someone or something to complain about, or they cannot be content,” former church member Libby Phelps-Alvarez wrote. “The words on the signs … are not necessarily written to make people feel bad, but more for the shock factor. Short sound bites grab people’s attention and spark interest.”
The protests have since expanded to pickets of mass shootings, civil-rights issues, the mainstream media, politicians, celebrities, the Catholic church and Silicon Valley. And everywhere the group goes, there seems to be no shortage of reporters in pursuit of an outrageous, yet compelling story that is sure to attract an audience.
It’s hard for news organizations to ignore the Westboro Baptist Church when it rolls into town. The group’s incendiary perspective, which it goes to great lengths to make very public, makes for a compelling human-interest story — more people are likely to click or tune in to a story where the teaser features an 8-year-old child holding a sign that says, “God Hates Fags.”
Journalists will often defend their controversial reporting by asserting their desire to cover all perspectives on an issue, yet the core message of the Westboro Baptist Church hasn’t changed in three decades. Even its tactics haven’t changed: It pickets where it can, and sues where it can’t. And what’s newsworthy about that? The reality is, the press loves a malicious story — because tragedy and drama equals ratings and clicks.
The problem is, the press no longer covers the hateful rhetoric as a newsworthy item. Instead, the media enables it.
It may sound silly, but what led me to decide not to cover the Westboro Baptist Church’s trip to San Francisco were two things: A prior commitment to take an injured pet to the vet, and a 1995 episode of the animated sitcom “The Simpsons” that ran on Halloween.
In the episode, a freak lightning storm causes giant advertising mascots to come to life. The mascots terrorize the town of Springfield, damaging buildings and killing people. Lisa Simpson goes to an advertising agency to find out how to stop the monsters from wreaking havoc, and an ad executive advises her that advertisements usually go away once people stop paying attention to them.
Paul Anka is randomly picked to write a jingle with the goal of diverting people’s attention away from the monsters. Together, Lisa and Anka sing, “Just don’t look! Just don’t look!” As people begin to look away, the monsters stiffen and die.