Topeka: A City Bulled into Submission by the Westboro Baptist Church
Very few in Topeka — a highly conservative town in a highly conservative state — admit to being allies of Fred Phelps or the WBC. Yet many are sympathetic to Phelps' anti-homosexual message, even if they find his tactics repulsive.
In 1990, the year before Phelps started his Gage Park picketing, he ran as a Democrat in the Kansas gubernatorial primary and won 6.7% of the vote.
In 1992, after one year of publicly flaunting his hatred of homosexuals, Phelps' popularity had actually shot up dramatically: He polled 31% of the vote in the Kansas Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, taking about 50,000 ballots. Last November, without even running for office, Phelps received write-in votes for several local offices.
But Phelps' influence goes deeper. Fearing WBC harassment, some state legislators refused to vote against Kansas' apparently unconstitutional criminal sodomy statute, says Mayor Wagnon. When the Topeka Human Relations Commission later decided merely to examine issues facing local gays and lesbians, the city council reacted by abolishing the commission.
According to commissioner Richard Alexander, the council feared Phelps' reaction. (After a public outcry, the commission was reestablished, but in a weakened form.) And because of Phelps' diatribes, city officials say, Topeka restricted public comment at city council meetings and declined a public access television channel.
Even more heavy-handed tactics are also common.
According to Jerry Palmer, an attorney involved in various legal conflicts with WBC, the city council passed an ordinance in the early 1990s that would have restricted pickets during church services and funerals. The measure required only the signature of then-Mayor Butch Felker in order to become law.
"Then a fax came out saying something like, 'The mayor has been playing around in the fleshpots of Parks and Recreation. No names yet but stay tuned,'" says Palmer. "We all regarded that as a tacit threat that Phelps would publicly reveal the name of Felker's extramarital girlfriend, who worked at the local zoo."
Felker, who later married the woman, vetoed the proposed law, telling constituents it was unconstitutional.
People who cross the Westboro Baptists have consistently had their unfortunate secrets spread around town. District Attorney Hamilton, who had run on a promise to stand up to the picketers, thought it was bad enough that she was repeatedly sued and that picketers would scream "pricks go up your ass" as she passed by with her elderly parents.
But then she woke up one morning to find that a private E-mail she had written to her husband, discussing both of their adulterous relationships, had been faxed to offices across the city.
City councilwoman Beth Listrom had confidential blood records describing her exposure to hepatitis faxed around on Westboro Baptist letterhead. The fax said Listrom was "tainted with a social disease (in the genre of AIDS or HIV+)."
Both the e-mail and the medical records apparently had been retrieved from the trash.
But even these remarkable tactics haven't turned off all local officials. A number seem to remain on remarkably friendly terms with Pastor Phelps.
Current City Councilman James McClinton, a black man who has been portrayed as a monkey in several faxes of unknown origin, alleges other council members and officials routinely leak sensitive information to Phelps. Within hours of many closed-door executive sessions of the council, he says, Phelps has learned the details and, in some cases, faxed them all over town.
Shawnee County Treasurer Rita Cline is a declared sympathizer. Describing Phelps as "a great civil rights leader" for lawsuits he won before being disbarred, she denies he has received special treatment from local officials. "If anything," she told the Report, "they've mistreated him."
Cline, who calls homosexuality "sinful" and tolerance of gays "garbage," disavows any special ties to Phelps. But Phelps is not so retiring. "We're the ones," he says, "who convinced her to run."
In any event, Cline is far from seeing Phelps as a blight upon Topeka. "I highly respect the gentleman," she declares. "How could you not?"
The Price of Hate
For years, economic growth in Topeka has been negligible — a dilemma Westboro Baptist has clearly helped to exacerbate. But the Topeka Convention and Visitor's Bureau (CVB), which promotes city tourism and economic development, has declined to investigate the problem.
According to Randy Austin and Betty Simecka, who are both former CVB presidents, that is because of fear of Phelps' harassment. Frustrated, Simecka and another former CVB employee got together privately to document the effect of Phelps and his church on convention business.
They found five instances where lost conventions could be directly attributed to WBC'S activities. In one case, a potential convention client was touring the city with a CVB official when they drove by a Phelps picket. "The lady [client] was hysterical and got down on the floor of the car," the Simecka report said. "They will not ever consider Topeka for a meeting 'as long as the Phelps group has a presence.'"
The estimated loss in these cases alone was $16.5 million.
Other impacts are harder to quantify. Picketers have routinely frightened spectators away from the city's money-losing Performing Arts Center. Poet Maya Angelou — who wrote and delivered a poem at President Clinton's inauguration — was so shaken when she spoke at the center that she cancelled her remaining Kansas appearances.
Even hiring city staff has gotten harder. Once, Mayor Wagnon drove by a Phelps picket shortly after giving a job to an openly gay city planner. Turning to the mayor, he told her he could never live in the same city as Phelps.
In the end, it was these kinds of economic costs that led to the creation in 1995 of the Concerned Citizens of Topeka (CCT), a citizens group that has grown into the most effective organization to take on Phelps and his family. Lobbying by CCT'S 800 members helped widen the picket-free zone around church services.
It prompted officials to put the church's pickup truck back on the tax rolls (WBC had argued that the truck, which carried picket signs like "Fag Dole" in reference to Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, was used exclusively for "religious" purposes). And CCT helped to spark a revealing 1997 investigation of the police chief of Topeka.