Topeka: A City Bulled into Submission by the Westboro Baptist Church

The Cost of Courage
The Phelpses don't just picket, they also fax. And what faxes. Sent out to dozens of government offices, law firms, businesses and homes across Kansas several times a week, the faxes are grotesque, non-stop political commentary lambasting local and national figures.

Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone is a "bug-eye faggy baby-killer." Sailors in the U.S. Navy are "blasphemous fag beasts." Jerry Berger, the Vintage owner, is a "[b]loody Jew... merchant of anal copulating."

Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's Democratic running mate last fall, is "an anti-Christ Jew" who "has sold his soul to fags." Elizabeth Taylor is "an evil woman" who led a "wicked, Christ-rejecting, Satan-worshipping life." Jesse Jackson is a "fag" and a "black Judas goat leading his people to hell."

Thanksgiving was established as a "pagan feast" so the Massachusetts governor could "lust after the semi-naked bodies of the Indians he invited." Poet Maya Angelou is the "filthy face of fag evil."

Some of these faxes are reproduced on www.godhatesfags.com, the WBC web site.

And then there are the lawsuits. Phelps himself is a disbarred attorney who was long known for massive litigation; at one point, he personally had almost 200 lawsuits pending in federal court. Although his congregation includes only about 22 adults, at least 14 of those have law degrees.

The church has its own law firm, Phelps Chartered, which is staffed by church members and which has repeatedly filed suit against its perceived enemies (see Halting Abusive Lawyers).

In addition to suing the chief of police and various Kansas judges and politicians, it has sued one district attorney three times for "malicious prosecution." Even private citizens who filed criminal complaints against the picketers found themselves embroiled in lawsuits — or, perhaps by coincidence, with roofing nails littering their driveways.

"We should stand up and be counted against this hatred, but I can recognize a moral dilemma to being courageous," concedes Randy Austin, former head of the Concerned Citizens of Topeka, a group established to counter WBC.

I can hold myself up for the picketing, the lawsuits, the harassment, " says Austin, a lawyer who manages a trust that owns shopping centers. "But what if I stand up to them and they put one of my tenants out of business? That's not okay."

Hate as a Family Value
The 50-odd adult and juvenile members of the Westboro Baptist Church are almost exclusively the extended family, by blood or marriage, of Fred Phelps, Sr.

Although four of his 13 children are estranged from Phelps and the church, nine — all attorneys — remain loyal. Most of those live on or near the same city block that holds their church.

Phelps' property and his residence, including a large swimming pool that he describes as a "baptismal font," are tax-exempt. Institutionally, WBC is an independent Baptist church that is not formally affiliated with any other Baptist denomination — although Topeka's mainline Baptist churches are apparently the only churches in Topeka that have failed to condemn WBC'S astounding vitriol.

According to the three Phelps children who are estranged from their father, the church's behavior is part of their father's long history of conflict (see Fred Phelps Timeline). They tell of a family whose profound insularity may explain why the church today does virtually no recruiting.

With a great deal of detail, they allege that their father engaged in physical and emotional abuse of his children, reflecting a need for control that bordered on brainwashing (see On the Inside). All three claim that at home he referred to black people as "dumb niggers."

"He behaves with a viciousness the likes of which I have never seen [elsewhere]," wrote one estranged son, Mark Phelps, who described his father as "a small, pathetic, old man."

"My father is a very unstable person who is determined to hurt people. ... I believe it's a good idea to respond to him with caution much like the caution used when dealing with a rattlesnake or a mad dog."

A Decade of Trouble
"He only started picketing in 1991, but I want people to understand that nothing's changed, he's been like this all along," adds Dortha Bird, a daughter of Phelps who is now a practicing lawyer in Topeka. Bird legally changed her last name when she left her family because, she says, she felt "free as a bird."

For 10 years now, Phelps has treated this city of 150,000 in much the same way as he allegedly treated his own children. It was in 1991 that he started "The Great Gage Park Decency Drive," pickets aimed at ending an alleged epidemic of homosexual sex in a park.

During the course of those and other pickets, Phelps and his followers engaged in activities that resulted in battery, criminal restraint and disorderly conduct convictions.

But convictions have been the exception. Of the hundreds of criminal complaints against WBC picketers lodged with police, at least 109 were forwarded to the district attorney's office, a large proportion of them against Phelps and one son, Jonathan. Only four cases resulted in convictions.

These figures give some idea of the harassment Topekans face at the hands of Phelps and his followers. But there are uncounted ugly incidents which did not involve any alleged criminality. Mayor Wagnon remembers the computer supplier who had to walk past a Phelps picket line on his way into her office.

"He stood there shaking, obviously emotionally devastated, and I asked him what was wrong," Wagnon said. "He said, 'My son committed suicide three weeks ago because he was gay. How can you let them stand there like that?'"