The Untold Truth Of The Westboro Baptist Church

The Westboro Baptist Church is one of the most notorious and infamous churches in the United States. According to Britannica, Fred Phelps founded the church, which is based out of Topeka, Kansas, and he also served as the church's first pastor. They consider themselves to be a Primitive Baptist Church, meaning they are not affiliated with any organized Christian denomination and remain independent from a central church. They teach that God hates the LGTBQ+ community, and they constantly read the Bible cover-to-cover –- using its teachings to justify their actions (per NPR).

The church is well known for its anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and protests at American soldier's funerals around the country. They have also spoken positively about such tragic events as the September 11 terrorist attacks and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which had led to widespread criticism. They claim to have staged "tens of thousands" of protests, ostensibly to warn Americans of their impending damnation for living in a country "beyond saving" –- due to its acceptance of LGBTQ lifestyles (via The New York Times). The family's patriarch Phelps passed away in 2014, but they continue to spew hate and vitriol wherever they go. According to Britannica, the majority of the church's roughly 100 members are extended family members of Phelps, who had 13 children. This is the unfortunate and untold truth of the Westboro Baptist Church.

The church is designated as a hate group

All of the outspoken hate and homophobia the Westboro Baptist Church has spewed has led to widespread public criticism and condemnation. As a result, both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) consider the church to be a designated hate group. The ADL calls them "virulently homophobic" and "publicity-hungry," for staging their anti-LGBTQ+ rallies at places they know the media will be. They also point out that the group regularly creates music videos aimed at children that espouse inflammatory and disturbing views. Even when they are portrayed negatively in the news the family sees it as a win, as church leader Shirley Phelps-Roper stated "Anytime we get the word out ... it's a good thing."

According to the SPLC, the group maintains a website titled "God Hates F***," which is also their slogan, and they regularly compare the gay community to Nazis. The family often involves their young children in the public picketing and protesting, and they regularly hold signs espousing anti-LGBTQ+ statements. They frequently target local businesses for protests and picketing, and they have also verbally attacked celebrities ranging from Sony Bono, to Lady Gaga, to Bob Dole. Many of the family members work for the Kansas Department of Corrections and have received complaints for their public remarks, but none have ever been publicly disciplined by the state.

The first service was held in 1955

While the church has only gained widespread attention since the 1990s, they have actually been around for quite a while longer. Phelps became ordained as a pastor when he was just 17, in 1947, and had previously held a "street ministry" in California that had been the subject to a Time magazine profile, per the SPLC. According to a profile of patriarch Fred Phelps (pictured above) in the Topeka Capital-Journal, he, his wife, and his young son arrived in Topeka, Kansas on May 4, 1954. The Phelps family came to town on the same day as the famous Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka decision at the Supreme Court, which outlawed segregation in schools. Phelps saw the ruling as a sign that Topeka was the place to settle down, and they decided to make Kansas their new home.

He started working as a pastor at a branch of the East Baptist Church, and when they opened up a new location on the other side of the city they decided on Phelps to be the new pastor there. Construction was completed on the new Westboro Baptist Church in November, and they held the first service just after Thanksgiving. However, within a short time, the congregation started to break apart after squabbling amongst themselves, per SPLC. 

Fred Phelps was permanently prohibited from practicing law – twice

When Fred Phelps was a young man in the early 1960s, he was beset by the social injustice problems that were plaguing the nation. He decided to get a law degree so he could help in the fight for justice, and he graduated from the Washburn University law school in 1964 (per the Topeka Capital-Journal). He quickly built a reputation as a solid civil rights attorney, which surprises most people in light of the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric his family has consistently spewed.

What is less surprising, but not very well known, is that Phelps was in trouble during his law career almost from the beginning. In 1969, the Kansas Supreme Court suspended Phelps for three counts of professional misconduct, and a decade later in 1979, they disbarred him permanently from practicing in any Kansas state courts. The disbarment stemmed from a trial earlier in the decade, in which Phelps had vindictively and abusively questioned a witness.

Another decade later, in 1989, Phelps voluntarily agreed to stop practicing law in federal court for the rest of his life. This time, the issue revolved around five of his children and one of their wives, who were all attorneys, and had been the subject of disciplinary complaints from nine federal judges. He agreed to stop practicing law in exchange for his kids being allowed to continue practicing law, though several of them were also subsequently suspended for a short period of time as part of the deal.

They have done anti-Semitic protests

Most people who have heard of the Westboro Baptist church are familiar with their anti-LGBTQ+ rallies and protests at dead soldier's funerals, but they do not often know about the group's turn toward anti-Semitism. According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency interview with church member Margie Phelps, beginning in April 2009 the group started to actively "focus" their efforts on the Jewish community. Phelps claimed rabbis were some "of the loudest voices in favor of homosexuality and abortion," and they were focusing on Jewish communities because Christians were not heeding their messages after 19 years.

In Washington D.C., they protested outside the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) offices, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Washington Hebrew Congregation –- the largest synagogue in the city. They have also made numerous public comments that are blatantly anti-Semitic in nature (per the ADL).

In 2009, they posted a statement on their website decrying a conspiracy involving the media and a "bloody Jew," and in 1997 they put out a press release equating "Worldwide Jewry" with a derogatory word for the gay community. The church blames Jewish people for many of their own legal troubles and has accused them of committing a "holocaust" against the church. Church members also regularly send out faxes and emails to Jewish organizations with anti-Semitic language.

They have fought to overturn multiple state laws

As part of its platform, the Westboro Baptist Church regularly espouses anti-American rhetoric. Per the Southern Poverty Law Center, church members believe that God is upset at the United States because of its support for LGBTQ+ rights, and "God is punishing the country by inflicting tragedies on its citizens." Church members often express their anti-American ideology by desecrating the country's flag. In 2007, church member Shirley Phelps-Roper was arrested for flag mutilation, disturbing the peace, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, after she let her minor-aged son stomp on a U.S. flag during a demonstration in Nebraska (per NBC). She vowed to fight the charges, arguing that she had a First Amendment right to freedom of speech and protest. A federal judge agreed with her, and the entire law was declared unconstitutional in 2010, and the city paid her a $17,000 settlement and dropped the charges related to the flag (per SPLC).

In 2014, the same issue again crept up, this time in Iowa. The American Civil Liberties Union represented three church members in their suit against the state, alleging two separate flag desecration laws were unconstitutional (per the Des Moines Register). Another federal judge again agreed with the church members, and both laws were struck down as unconstitutional in Iowa. In both cases, the federal judges cited the 1989 Supreme Court decision Texas v. Johnson, which held that destroying the flag in protest was protected under the First Amendment.

The Matthew Shepard protests

Prior to June 1991, the Westboro Baptist Church was not well known outside of its small community in Topeka. However, that all changed when they created their "picketing ministry" that summer and started protesting events to bring national attention to the church (per the Southern Poverty Law Center). The group was gaining some notoriety, but the thing that really made them infamous was when they started directly protesting funerals in 1998.

That year, 21-year-old college student Matthew Shepard was tragically murdered in an anti-gay hate crime that was perpetrated by two young men who he encountered at a bar (via ABC News). Shepard was viciously beaten with the handle of a gun and left tied to a fence outside in freezing temperatures for 18 hours, per the Coloradoan. He died in the hospital days later from his injuries in a shocking crime that outraged the nation.

Yet, the Westboro Baptist Church felt that Shepard's funeral would be a good time for them to exercise their "picketing ministry." They protested his funeral on October 16, 1998, and they immediately shot to national attention when the media saw their "God Hates F***" and "AIDS Kills F*** Dead” signs. Since then, they have regularly protested funerals for LGBTQ+ individuals, using disturbing and vitriolic rhetoric.

The church started picketing soldier's funerals in 2005

Picketing the funerals of the LGBTQ+ community was not enough for the Westboro Baptist Church. In June of 2005, they started protesting the funerals of American servicemen who died in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars (per the Southern Poverty Law Center). They held protests around the country and claimed that God was punishing America by killing its soldiers in the wars. They happily remarked on the huge numbers of dead servicemen, and Fred Phelps claimed he was "ecstatic" at the idea of further deaths.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, church members regularly hold signs that read "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Thank God for IEDs," (improvised explosive devices). In an April 2006 flier they distributed, they put "Thank God for 4 more dead troops. We wish it were 4,000." They do not consider themselves to be anti-war protestors, but rather they are "prophets of God" spreading the message that America is doomed. Astonishingly, in 1997, Phelps even sent a letter to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, praising his country's religious freedom and asking to be invited to Iraq to preach the Gospel.

Over 40 states have enacted laws in response to the Westboro Baptist church

Due to the outrageous and antagonistic nature of the Westboro Baptist Church's protests, over 40 states and the federal government have enacted laws to try and limit them. While it would be unconstitutional to outright ban protests against funerals in general, states have tried several tactics to stop the church from further disruptions (per Middle Tennessee State University). One ploy has been to prohibit protests from occurring directly before and after a funeral, and another limits how close protestors can be -– effectively shielding the mourners from hearing and seeing any unwanted hateful epithets during the services. Kansas passed the first such law in 1992, which was declared unconstitutional, but they crafted a new law with slightly modified provisions. It's still in effect today.

In 2006 Congress also passed two bills, the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act and the Respect for the Funerals of America's Fallen Heroes Act, which both addressed protests at military funerals. They prohibit any unauthorized protests at the Arlington National Cemetery, and at military funerals at military cemeteries. The church has protested many of these state laws' constitutionality and has had success in a few states (per the Anti-Defamation League). Most of the laws still remain on the books, though some of them have been modified or revised.

The WBC has been banned from multiple countries

Americans are not the only ones upset with the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church, and multiple foreign countries have taken measures to stop the group from doing the same thing there. In 2008, several church members traveled from Kansas to Winnipeg, Manitoba, with the express intention of picketing at a funeral for a young Canadian man who had recently been murdered on a Greyhound bus (per the Advocate). Church patriarch Fred Phelps blamed the death on God's wrath against Canada's pro-choice and gay marriage laws. Authorities alerted the Canadian border patrol to refuse entry to the church members, and several were turned away when they arrived with inflammatory signs.

The next year in 2009, multiple church members were barred from entering the United Kingdom for similar reasons. Per the SPLC, They had publicly stated their desire to protest a play known as The Laramie Project, which was being hosted by Queen Mary's College. The Laramie Project is a play about the death of gay college student Matthew Shepard, whose funeral the church infamously protested in 1998. 

Several family members have left the church

The Phelps family makes up the vast majority of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church and seems like a very tight-knit group. Nearly all of the members, from any generation, join in on the very public protests. However, that does not mean that the entire family has stayed together throughout the years. According to The Week, roughly 20 members of the church have left since the early 2000s. While the remaining members are often unceremonious in their goodbyes, reports have emerged that it impacts them deeply and leads to long bouts of crying. Several of Fred Phelps' grandchildren have left, including one former church member who was excommunicated for seeking medical treatment for his ailing back.

Several former members have written books about their experiences growing up and living in the church, including Phelps' granddaughter Megan Phelps-Roper (pictured above). She left once she reached her early-20s, after having severe theological differences with the church's teachings (via NPR). She wrote a memoir in 2019, which detailed her experiences and reasons for leaving. Per CNN, Phelps' son Nathan left the church when he turned 18 after experiencing years of abuse at the hands of his father. He claimed that his father used to hit many family members with the handle of a mattock, and he called him "evil." His sister, Shirley Phelps-Roper, released a statement calling the allegations a lie; which Nathan, in turn, blasted for not being true.

Members have been arrested several times

You would not expect people who claim to be part of such a highly religious organization would find themselves afoul of the law, but for Westboro Baptist Church members that is often the case. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, since the 1990s, many members have found themselves under arrest. In 1993, a district attorney from Kansas brought assault and battery charges against several members over their picket lines. The following July, Fred Phelps (pictured above) was convicted on two counts of disorderly conduct and given a suspended sentence.

In 1995, Phelps' grandson was arrested and convicted of misdemeanor battery, and his son Jonathan was also arrested and convicted of disorderly conduct. In 1999, both Phelps and Jonathan were charged with aggravated intimidation, but the charges were later dropped. As previously mentioned, in 2007, Shirley Phelps-Roper was arrested after allowing her son to stomp on the American flag during a protest in Nebraska, which was illegal under state law at that time (per the Southern Poverty Law Center).

It might surprise some people that they have not been arrested more often for their protests, but it is considered protected speech and assembly by the First Amendment. The protests are usually non-violent, and the church typically limits itself to abusive language rather than physical abuse.

They almost lost a $11 million judgment in court

In 2006, following a particularly controversial protest, the Westboro Baptist Church nearly lost everything. It started when they decided to protest the funeral of Marine Matthew Snyder, who had been killed while fighting in the Iraq War. According to the U.S. Courts website, the church members held signs that read "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and "Don't Pray for the USA." Snyder's father Albert (pictured above) became aware of the vitriolic protests after watching a news report that night, and he was infuriated. He filed a lawsuit against the church for severe emotional distress, but they claimed it was protected speech under the First Amendment. A District of Maryland jury agreed with Snyder and awarded him a judgment of $10.9 million against the church.

An appeals court reversed the decision, agreeing with Fred Phelps and the church that it was protected speech. Eventually, the case made it to the Supreme Court, which agreed with Phelps and the Appeals court, and they decided in Phelps's favor by an 8-1 vote. The one dissenting Justice was Samuel Alito, who felt the protestors went too far in their conduct. He wrote, "In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims" (via NPR).

The church spreads conspiracy theories

Most people (rightfully) associate the Westboro Baptist Church with their hatred of the LGTBQ+ community and abortion, but most do not know just how depraved and disturbing some of their theories are. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, they even spread conspiracy theories about the September 11 terrorist attacks. The church claimed in a 2006 statement the attacks were the result of "direct outpourings of divine retribution," in response to LGBGQ+ friendly laws in the United States. They also regularly claim that the gay community is made up of Nazis, and in 2010, when two sets of twin girls died a month apart in Massachusetts from drowning, the church blamed their deaths on that state's gay marriage laws.

In addition, they claim the entire country of America is doomed and all of its citizens are going to hell. Everyone in the country is guilty of the country's laws –- except of course themselves –- which allow for LGBTQ+ acceptance. God punishes America by hurting its citizens in response to these laws -– according to the church. Per KTUL, the group also blames the coronavirus on God's wrath, claiming "God has sent the coronavirus in fury."