For a moment, it seemed possible that the gay-bashing Kansas church infamous for picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers with signs like “God Hate F---” and “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” might moderate its views after the March 19 death of its founder and longtime leader. Pastor Fred Phelps himself, according to a claim from his grandson Zacharias Phelps-Roper, dramatically softened his stance on LGBT people shortly before he died in a Topeka hospice.
Well, that sure didn’t happen. Instead, Westboro Baptist Church members soldiered on, continuing their traveling hatefests as though nothing had happened.
Standing across the street from a group of counter-protesters who held a banner expansively proclaiming, “Sorry for your loss,” Westboro members picketed a Kansas City concert by pop star Lorde just one day after patriarch Phelps gave up the ghost. Church member Steve Drain, who has served as the voice of the church since Phelps was reportedly excommunicated last fall for saying he thought congregants should be nicer to each other, claimed indifference to the counter-protesters’ pointedly respectful banner. “I don’t even know what they’re saying,” he told Kansas City’s KSHB.
Residents of tornado-ravaged Moore, Okla., which in 2013 was devastated by a storm that killed 24 people and caused an estimated $2 billion in property damage, were considerably less whimsical in their response to a posthumous visit from Westboro protesters. On April 6, hundreds of townspeople, described in a Westboro flyer as “phony-salt-of-the-earth-small-town-pseudo-patriot-pretend-Christians,” showed up to register their opposition.
Westboro members had a permit to picket Moore’s Central Junior High School for 30 minutes, starting at 2 p.m., but packed their “God Hates F---” signs and fled at 2:08, after Moore residents began to cross their picket lines. Despite the disorder, police reported that no one was arrested or taken into custody because the townspeople remained “relatively respectful.”
Westboro members were not deterred for long. On May 17, a gaggle of church members showed up at festivities at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kan., and Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., to protest the “filthy, base, illiterate, Godless, Bible-deprived, God-hating, God-hated, without-hope young people” celebrating college graduation. Reinforcing the observation that Westboro’s flamboyant vileness has shored up support for acceptance of LGBT people, counter-protesters vastly outnumbered church members at both events.
Nathan Phelps, estranged son of Fred Phelps, actively encouraged this trend with a post on his Facebook page. “Use WBC as the impetus for positive social campaigns,” he wrote on March 26. “Let the immorality of WBC be the backdrop to the moral actions of communities coming together and supporting their besieged LGBT friends and neighbours.”