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Fred Phelps' Latest Tactic Shocks Foes From Left to Right

Phelps has celebrated the deaths of U.S. soldiers because "God is punishing America."

Fred Phelps has never been shy about his volcanic hatred of gay men and lesbians. As pastor of Westboro Baptist Church and proprietor of the infamous "God Hates F---" Web site, Phelps has picketed hundreds of mainstream churches to accuse them of being "f---enabling" institutions. His group came to world attention protesting the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming college student beaten to death in 1998 by two gay-bashers, while carrying "Thank God for AIDS" signs and worse. When nearly 3,000 Americans were murdered on Sept. 11, 2001, Phelps first attacked the pilot of one of the hijacked planes for supposedly being gay, then said Americans were being justly punished by the "rod of God" for tolerating homosexuality.

Can it get any worse than that? Many Americans think it already has.

Since last June, Phelps and the members of his Topeka, Kansas, church have taken to picketing the funerals of American servicemen and servicewomen killed in Iraq. From Idaho to Alabama and Colorado to Michigan, Phelps has celebrated the deaths of U.S. soldiers because, he says, God is punishing America with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) for being nice to gays and lesbians -- or, as he sometimes tells it, because someone supposedly once used a small IED to attack his clan.

"God is visiting the sins upon America by killing their kids with IEDs ... and the more the merrier," Phelps gloated on a Fox News program last June. "Seventeen hundred so far, to 17,000. We will be ecstatic about [further deaths]."

As a result of his amazing vitriol, Phelps has managed to do something few others have -- unite Americans from the far right all the way over to the liberal left. Several anti-gay organizations have wondered aloud if he was some kind of plant designed to sully their cause. Be that as it may, the funeral picketing has prompted a number of patriotic groups to create motorcycle escorts to shield mourners from the Phelps crew, and to drown out their anti-gay chants with their engines. Numerous municipalities are weighing laws to prevent funeral pickets. But nothing has stopped Phelps, whose message, "Thank God for dead soldiers," remains unchanged.