Topeka: A City Bulled into Submission by the Westboro Baptist Church
TOPEKA, Kan. -- No one says that Fred Waldron Phelps, Sr., or his congregation at the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) are any friends of the Topeka police department. For years, police listened as complaints streamed in that WBC'S picketers, with signs reading "God Hates Fags" and "Fags Die/God Laughs," went beyond the bounds of free speech.
They took reports from people who were battered, harassed, stalked and spat on by the Westboro congregants. They heard about scores of people like the mainstream preacher who was accused by one of Phelps' followers of "drink[ing] anal blood at the altar of the sphincter."
Still, Fred Phelps and the police found ways to get along — perhaps a little too well. The city's police chief was asked to resign in 1997 after allegedly instructing his officers never to arrest Phelps or his picketing congregants.
The new chief, who had tangled with Phelps earlier, promised to stand up to the man, to end the special treatment. Within months, Phelps and his lawyer-laden church had written up 40 pages of complaints and sued him.
To settle the case, the chief promised to never publicly discuss Phelps or deal personally with his church. Today, it is a brave local indeed who dares to stand up to the man who may be America's most vitriolic fountain of anti-homosexual hate.
"They have used their constitutional rights," Topeka Mayor Joan Wagnon says of Phelps and his followers, "to bully this town into submission."
For 10 years, Phelps and his Westboro Baptists — a congregation almost entirely composed of his extended family — have waged a battle against lesbians, gays and a whole host of other perceived enemies.
They have used daily pickets, an array of intimidating tactics, scores of lawsuits and a veritable flood of faxes that are so filled with slurs and sex that they rival the product of the most prolific professional pornographer.
They run America's most infamous anti-homosexual web site, www.godhatesfags.com. In the process, even as they made life miserable for their enemies, Fred Phelps and his followers have created a niche for themselves in Topeka.
And if, as some say, the city and church have grown more tolerant of one another in recent years, credit may be due as much to Phelps' intimidation as to any success by the city or its inhabitants in leashing his mad-dog tactics.
"Topeka is now identified with Fred Phelps," a chagrined Mayor Wagnon said in an interview with the Intelligence Report. "If someone could figure out how to get him off the streets, they could be elected mayor for life."
'A Human Abuse Machine'
The Westboro Baptist Church is most famous — or infamous — for its campaign against homosexuality. Its members have traveled from San Francisco to Canada to New Hampshire preaching "the Bible's hatred," advocating the death penalty for homosexuals and picketing the funerals of gay aids and murder victims, most visibly that of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.
At a recent Westboro sermon attended by the Report, Phelps, who is 71, told his young grandchildren never to "have sex with feces" or "drink semen" like "sodomite fags."
"There's something about anal copulating," Phelps lamented in a rather unusual take on human biology, "that just drains the cells out of the brain."
All concerned agree that the WBC really does hate gays. But at least one church member has said openly that if all homosexuals disappeared, congregants would find some other reason to picket.
And Suzanne James, who recently resigned after eight years in the Shawnee County District Attorney's office as director of victim services, says Phelps's opposition to homosexuality obscures a deeper purpose — promoting himself and hurting others.
"I'm so tired of people calling him an 'anti-gay activist'," James told the Report. "He's not an anti-gay activist. He's a human abuse machine."
The most striking aspect of Westboro Baptist pickets is the relentlessly personal nature of their taunts. Their targets are only sometimes homosexuals; as often as not, they are simply people who somehow crossed the Phelpses, often unintentionally.
WBC members have picketed the funerals of Bill Clinton's mother, Sonny Bono and Frank Sinatra. Even Bob Dole, Jerry Falwell, the Ku Klux Klan, Santa Claus and the 17 sailors killed aboard the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen last October have been attacked as "fags" or "supporters of the fag agenda."
One little girl, going with her parents to see the "Nutcracker" ballet in a Topeka hall, had WBC pickets hiss at her: "Did your Daddy stick in his prick in your ass last night?"
Typically, targets are Topeka locals, whose names are memorialized in lurid WBC picket signs protesting "Fag Meneley" (for former sheriff Dave Meneley), "Bull Dyke James" (Suzanne James), "Jo*ANus Hamilton" (Shawnee County District Attorney Joan Hamilton). Once the signs are made, the WBC congregants go to work.
For 10 Years, '40 Pickets a Week'
They picket people at their offices, at the restaurants they patronize, in the schools their children attend. They picket church services, beauty pageants, basketball games, even "Peace Camps" for young kids. They picket weddings and they picket funerals. In Topeka, they have picketed the courthouses, the city's newspaper, a local university and almost every other church in town.
They have picketed people at their homes, while they prepared for work in the morning or threw parties at night. They hated one Nissan car dealer enough to drive 500 miles and picket the Nissan factory in Smyrna, Tenn.
In an interview with the Report, Fred Phelps estimated that since 1991, WBC has carried out 40 pickets a week, every week. What's remarkable is that he may not be exaggerating by much.
"There was a woman working at my restaurant who was gay," says Jerry Berger, an attorney and owner of Topeka's Vintage Restaurant. "Phelps told me, 'If you don't fire her, we're going to put you out of business.'" The Westboro Baptists proceeded to picket the Restaurant "literally every day" for about three years. Berger eventually sold the restaurant and the woman quit.
Phelps didn't. He followed the unfortunate woman, picketing at her new job, and "he still pickets the restaurant all the time," Berger said in a recent interview. "And now, he pickets my law offices every Tuesday."