The Westboro Baptist Church Debates

The Last Word

Miami — Florida International University associate law professor Jose Gabilondo could be forgiven for seeming dazed after Westboro Baptist Church members were invited to the Miami school last October to debate him on Amendment 2, which sought to add a ban on same-sex marriage to the Sunshine State's constitution. Indignation and insults followed, with one alum suggesting that Gabilondo suffered from a "lack of testicular fortitude."

Gabilondo is the faculty adviser to a gay group at FIU's College of Law that invited two spokeswomen from the virulently anti-homosexual, Topeka, Kan.-based church known for its favorite slogan, "God hates fags."

Founded by Fred Phelps, Westboro is infamous for picketing and shouting epithets at funerals of dead soldiers, children killed in traffic accidents, and celebrities. Eleven days before the FIU event, the church declared that recently deceased film icon Paul Newman was in hell because he was a "fag enabler" who "promoted the filthy fag agenda."

The week of the FIU debate, church members planned picketing at several sites, including one in Alaska. Closer to home, a demonstration was planned at a Kansas State University football game. The church's website admonished players that "God will laugh you to scorn (Psalm 2) as you bellow and bawl about getting your backsides spanked both on and off the football field."

And now here were two of Fred Phelps' daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Margie Phelps, along with Shirley's 22-year-old daughter, Megan, in the halls of academia. That would be the same Shirley who said on Fox News in October 2006 that five Amish schoolgirls who were murdered in Pennsylvania deserved to die for Gov. Ed Rendell's "blasphemous sins" against Westboro — he had criticized the church for protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. With her 79-year-old father having faded from the spotlight, it is Phelps-Roper who has become the most visible and vocal of Westboro's members, who consist mostly of Phelps family members and those who have married into the confrontational clan.

Supporters of the Florida ballot measure complained that Westboro was invited to debate in order to place their campaign in the worst light possible. A newspaper scribe described Westboro as "a bottom-feeding group" and said somebody else should have been asked to argue the pro-amendment case. Gabilondo said more mainstream proponents were invited but declined. Besides, he saw no difference between "respectable" homophobia and unacceptable homophobia.

That prompted a recent FIU graduate to write a lengthy protest to school administrators: "Does [Gabilondo] have so little confidence in his abilities to rise to the challenge in debating such a complex and nuanced issue … that he can't ‘find someone his own size' to argue with, and must satisfy his ego by mopping the proverbial floor with some mentally inbred misfits from Kansas?"

On a Saturday morning at the FIU law school, about 50 people showed up for the verbal duel between the openly gay and gregarious Gabilondo and his gay-bashing adversaries. Two police officers lingered outside. The church's website said the sisters were going to FIU to debate the school's "feces eaters."

Debate organizers admonished the audience not to clap or boo. Gabilondo said privately that he was prepared to cut the event short if it became rowdy. It didn't. The professor chided those who would censor Westboro members and said he appreciated their candor. He added that he fears the likes of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia more than a small church's members. "He's a friendly fellow and a likeable fellow," conceded Margie Phelps.

While the sisters were civil, they were characteristically blunt. Phelps cited the Bible passage to be fruitful and multiply. "It doesn't matter how long you anally copulate, you will not bear children," she said. Children of divorced parents or who have gay parents "would have been better off stillborn," she added.

Her sister buttressed her comments with photos of drag queens, gay pride parades, death and devastation. "You embrace fags, which God calls abomination," Phelps-Roper said. "You teach your children to be whores. Now you sprint to your destruction."

Afterward, the sisters posed with Gabilondo for photos. Phelps-Roper pronounced the event "very dynamic." She insisted that, despite her vitriolic rhetoric, she does not hate LGBT people. "The standard of loving your neighbor is warning them their behavior can send them to hell. It's only a kindness to tell them … they're going to hell."