The group is basically a family-based cult of personality built around its patriarch, Fred Phelps. Typified by its slogan, “God Hates Fags,” WBC is known for its harsh anti-gay beliefs and the crude signs its members carry at their frequent protests.
In Its Own Words
"Filthy sodomites crave legitimacy as dogs eating their own vomit & sows wallowing in their own feces crave unconditional love."
— Westboro Baptist Church news release, Jan. 15, 1998
"We told you, right after it happened five years ago, that the deadly events of 9/11 were direct outpourings of divine retribution, the immediate visitation of God’s wrath and vengeance and punishment for America’s horrendous sodomite sins, that worse and more of it was on the way. We further told you that any politician, any political official, any preacher telling you differently as to the cause and interpretation of 9/11 is a dastardly lying false prophet, cowardly and mean, and headed for hell. And taking you with him! God is no longer with America, but is now America’s enemy. God himself is now America’s terrorist."
— Fred Phelps, “9/11: God’s Wrath Revealed,” Sept. 8, 2006.
"JEWS KILLED JESUS! Yes, the Jews killed the Lord Jesus…Now they’re carrying water for the fags; that’s what they do best: sin in God’s face every day, with unprecedented and disproportionate amounts of sodomy, fornication, adultery, abortion and idolatry! God hates these dark-hearted rebellious disobedient Jews."
— Westboro Baptist Church news release, April 23, 2009
The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is made up of its leader, Pastor Fred Waldron Phelps, nine of his 13 children (the other four are estranged), their children and spouses, and a small number of other families and individuals. Phelps has maintained tight control over the group. His estranged son Nathan says the elder Phelps abused his children and his wife, cultivating an atmosphere of fear to maintain his authority.
They believe that God chooses some to be saved, and those lucky few cannot resist God's call; but God chooses not to save most, and these unfortunate souls will burn in hell forever. The "Frequently Asked Questions," or FAQ section of the WBC website explains: "Your best hope is that you are among those he has chosen. Your prayer every day should be that you might be. And if you are not, nothing you say or do will serve as a substitute."
WBC specializes in anti-gay vitriol. Its main website is titled "God Hates Fags." That website says, "The only true Nazis in this world are fags. They want to force you by law to support their filth, and they want to shut you up by law when they hate what you say." According to the group, America has damned itself through its tolerance of homosexuality, and God is punishing the country by inflicting tragedies on its citizens. For example, when two sets of twin girls drowned in Massachusetts in separate incidents in July and August 2010, the WBC blamed their deaths on the state's 2004 legalization of same-sex marriage.
The church held its first service on Nov. 27, 1955. Fred Phelps raised his family near the church and many members of the Phelps family live in houses on the WBC compound. These houses are arranged in a box formation and share a large backyard. In 1964, Fred founded Phelps-Chartered, a law firm that has come to represent the church in its civil suits. All five of the firms' attorneys are his children. The Kansas Supreme Court disbarred Phelps in 1979, stating that Phelps showed "little regard for the ethics of his profession."
The WBC came to public attention when it began its "picketing ministry," meaning their practice of holding controversial protests to raise awareness of the church and its beliefs. In line with their belief in predestination, the pickets are not aimed at winning followers, but only at warning them of their coming damnation. They began picketing in June 1991, and claim to have picketed more than 40,000 times since then. Though this works out to nearly six protests a day, the church regularly schedules that many or more daily protests on an ongoing basis, although it doesn't hold every protest it advertises. At its protests, WBC members hold inflammatory signs bearing messages like "God Hates Fags," "God Hates Jews," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Thank God for AIDS."
The church has used its right to protest to harass local businesses and individuals in Topeka, Kan. They reportedly picketed a local restaurant every day for three years because its owner knowingly employed a lesbian. Many of the group's targets seem chosen at random: the church picketed a concert by young Canadian pop star Justin Bieber because he was not using his fame to promote God. Other targets have included Bill Clinton's mother, Sonny Bono, Lady Gaga, and Bob Dole. Shirley Phelps-Roper, who is a frequent protester and one of Fred Phelps' children, will sometimes wear American flags hanging from her pants while protesting, so that they scrape against the ground as she walks. She has allowed her children to step on an American flag during protests. The WBC uses tactics like these to win media attention and spread its message.
Children in the Phelps family are raised in the church's beliefs, and their upbringing offers them few opportunities to integrate into mainstream society. It is common to see young children from the Phelps family at WBC pickets, often holding the group's hateful signs. These children casually use the words "fag" and "dyke" in interviews, and the older children report having no close friends at school. The Phelps family raises its children to hold hateful and upsetting views, and to believe that all people not in WBC will go to hell. The tenets of WBC are so strict that no other churches are taken to be legitimate. The children quickly grow alienated in school and in society, leading them to build relationships almost exclusively within the family. This helps to explain why nine of Fred Phelps' 13 children have remained members of the church.
Fred Phelps and his small congregation provide WBC's funding; the group neither solicits nor accepts outside donations. In addition to this income, the church makes money by winning or settling civil lawsuits involving the church. During the 1990s, the group sued Topeka multiple times for failing to provide sufficient protection during its protests. Although they lost most of their cases, WBC did win $43,000 in legal fees in 1993. According to Shirley Phelps-Roper, they also won more than $100,000 in 1995 in a lawsuit against Kansas' Funeral Picketing Act, which they claimed violated their First Amendment rights. Because the Phelps family represents WBC in court, they can put the fees they win towards supporting the church.
As of 2007, several WBC members worked for the state, providing an additional income stream. According to Seattle-based Prison Legal News, members of the Phelps clan then in the employ of the state of Kansas included Fred Phelps' daughter Margie, the Department of Corrections' (DOC) director of re-entry planning; Fred Phelps Jr., a staff attorney with the DOC; and Timothy Phelps, a spokesman for the Shawnee County DOC. Margie Phelps was even awarded "Kansas Correctional Association Employee of the Quarter" in late 2005 — this despite her arrest at a 2004 protest at a dedication ceremony for the Brown v. Board of Education Historical Site in Topeka. Abigail Phelps, another Westboro activist, worked in the staff development office for Kansas' Juvenile Justice Authority. Lee Ann Phelps and Elizabeth Phelps both formerly held positions with the Shawnee County Sheriff's Department.
In February 2007, Prison Legal News, which monitors human-rights abuses within America's prison system, filed an ethics complaint with Kansas legal officials against Shirley Phelps-Roper. The complaint alleged that Phelps violated legal ethical canons because of the extreme vitriol she directed toward gays and lesbians on a radio show. The state's Office of the Disciplinary Administrator declined to pursue it, citing the First Amendment.
On Oct. 12, 1998, gay student Matthew Shepard died of injuries inflicted in a brutal hate crime in Laramie, Wyo. What vaulted WBC to worldwide infamy was its decision to protest Shepard's funeral held on Oct. 16, 1998. Members picketed carrying signs that read "God Hates Fags" and "AIDS Kills Fags Dead." The group also attempted without success to build a granite monument in a public park in Casper, Wyo., declaring: "Matthew Shepard, Entered Hell October 12, 1998, in Defiance of God's Warning: ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.' Leviticus 18:22." The group's website maintains a virtual "memorial" to Matthew Shepard, which depicts him burning in hell.
In June 2005, WBC began picketing the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The group maintains that God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality and persecuting WBC. They even claimed that God had chosen to use improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, to kill American soldiers because of an August 1995 attack on the WBC compound with a small explosive device. In a June 2005 interview with Fox News, Fred Phelps said: "God is visiting the sins upon America by killing their kids with IEDs ... and the more the merrier."
On March 10, 2006, the WBC picketed the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine who was killed while serving in Iraq. WBC members held signs reading "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "You're going to Hell." Matthew's father, Albert Snyder, sued WBC for defamation, invasion of privacy, and emotional distress, going to trial in 2007. He originally won a $10.9 million judgment, but it was reversed on appeal in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. On March 8, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal. On March 19, 2010, the Fourth Circuit ordered Albert Snyder to pay more than $16,000 for the WBC's court costs. Snyder described the Fourth Circuit's order as "a slap in the face." In early March 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected WBC's right to hold protests at funerals.
On Oct. 2, 2006, five Amish girls were murdered in a Pennsylvania schoolhouse. The WBC announced plans to picket their funerals, but agreed to abstain in exchange for one hour of airtime on talk-show host Mike Gallagher's radio program. On Oct. 3, 2006, on the Fox News program Hannity and Colmes, Shirley Phelps-Roper said, "They [the Amish girls] did deserve to die."
On June 5, 2007, Shirley Phelps-Roper was arrested while protesting in Bellevue, Neb. Shirley had allowed her son to stand on an American flag, while she wore a flag around her waist, allowing it to drag along the ground as she walked. Shirley was charged under a Nebraska flag desecration law. She was also charged with negligent child abuse, disturbing the peace, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor (because she allowed her son to violate the flag law.) On July 27, 2010, the city of Bellevue dropped the charges of flag desecration and contributing to the delinquency of a child, due to a federal judge declaring the flag desecration law unconstitutional. The city also paid Phelps-Roper $17,000 in a settlement agreement, in exchange for her dropping a pending lawsuit against the city. However, the city did not drop the charges of disturbing the peace and negligent child abuse.
WBC members have been banned from other countries because of their hateful views. In August 2008, WBC announced its plans to protest the funeral of a man beheaded on a Greyhound Bus in Canada. In response, Canada barred the group's members from entering the country, and the funeral was conducted uninterrupted. In February 2009, the group planned to travel to Britain to protest a staging of "The Laramie Project," a highly respected play that documents the hate murder of gay student Matthew Shepard and how the incident impacted the community. In response, Britain banned Fred Phelps and Shirley Phelps-Roper from traveling to the United Kingdom.