Westboro Baptist Timeline
1929 Fred Phelps was born in Meriden, Mississippi.
1945 Phelps graduated from Meridian (MS) High School at age fifteen.
1947 Phelps had been admitted to West Point Academy but decided to become a minister rather than attend West Point.
1947-1951 Phelps attended a succession of colleges and universities.
1952 Phelps married Margie Simms.
1955 Phelps established the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka.
1962-1964 Phelps received B.A. and J.D. degrees from Washburn University.
1964 Phelps established the Phelps Chartered Law Firm.
1979 Phelps was permanently disbarred from practicing law in Kansas.
1989 Phelps agreed to permanently end his practice of law in the federal court system after complaints were filed against him.
1991 WBC began anti-gay protests locally.
1998 The organization became notorious in 1998, when members of the group demonstrated at the funeral of Matthew Shepard.
2011 Supreme Court ruled that WBS public rhetoric was constitutionally protected speech.
Fred Waldron Phelps was born as the eldest child to Catherine Johnston and Fred Wade Phelps in Meridian, Mississippi in 1929. Phelps and his sister were raised by an aunt for a time following his mother’s death and subsequently by his stepmother. Accounts of Phelps’ childhood depict him as normal for his age but also as intelligent and an achiever. (Taschler and Fry 1994). During his high school years he participated in the Boy Scouts, the school band and newspaper, the school’s track and boxing teams, a local Methodist church and the Junior State Guard. Phelps graduated with honors from high school in 1945 at age fifteen, with admission to West Point Academy awaiting him. There were few clues at this point in his life about his future directions.
A major personal transformation for Phelps began in 1946 when he attended a Methodist revival, which fired his religious passions. He reported that he felt he was being called by God into the ministry and to missionary work. He stated that he "went to a little Methodist revival meeting and had what I think was an experience of grace, they call it down there. I felt the call, as they say, and it was powerful. The God of glory appeared.” His religious passion changed his life. As one of his relatives later recounted, "Fred, bless his heart, just went overboard. If you didn't accept it, he was going to cram it down your throat." (Taschler and Fry 1994). Phelps then declined the admission to West Point and decided to instead become a minister. By 1947 Phelps had changed his denominational affiliation to Baptist and was ordained as a minister.
Between 1947 and 1951 Phelps attended several colleges and universities. He enrolled in Bob Jones University for three semesters and the Prairie Bible Institute in Alberta Canada for two semesters before dropping out. He earned a two-year degree from John Muir College in 1951 and then attended the Arizona Bible Institute where he met his future wife, Margie Simms; the couple wedded in 1952. For a time he engaged in missionary work in Utah, attempting to convert members of the Latter-Day Saint tradition.
Phelps inaugurated his own church in Topeka, the Westboro Baptist Church, in 1955. He also continued his education. Between 1962 and 1964 Phelps earned B.A. and J.D. degrees from Washburn University in Topeka, and upon graduation in 1964 he founded the Phelps Chartered Law Firm. The twin projects of the church and the law firm became the centers of his adult life.
WBS claims that its doctrines are consistent with the Primitive Baptist tradition (a very conservative wing of the Baptist tradition formed in the early 19 th century that closely follows the King James version of the Bible in its beliefs and practices) and with Calvinism. Specifically, WBS professes a belief that prior to their birth certain people are elected for Salvation by God (unconditional election) and that Christ died for the elect (limited atonement). All of the traditions to which WBS links itself reject any connection to the church.
The theological positions of WRS are not dramatically in conflict with the tenets of many other Christian churches, except in the
area of homosexuality, and the church’s identity has become almost synonymous with those doctrines. As Phelps has stated, "the modern militant homosexual movement" poses "a clear and present danger to the survival of America, exposing our nation to the wrath of God as in 1898 B.C. at Sodom and Gomorrah" (“ Westboro Baptist Church Plans…”). The foundation of Phelps’ unconditional opposition to homosexuality is his belief in God’s hate and wrath for sinfulness. He has stated: “You can’t be a Bible preacher without preaching the hatred of God, the wrath of God. It is a fabrication, this modern Christianity, that says good old God loves everybody, like some grandfather or Santa Claus figure (and) is gonna wink at sin. Nobody believes that God willy-nilly forgives people, except heretics. There is no such thing as divine forgiveness without repentance” (“Preaching God’s Hate” 1994). In Phelps’ view, children growing up in American culture have been permitted to accept homosexuality. He states that “They were raised on a steady diet of fag propaganda in the home, on TV, in church, in school, in mass media - everywhere - the two pronged lie: 1) It's OK to be gay; and, 2) Anyone saying otherwise, like WBC, is a hatemonger who must be vilified, demonized, marginalized…” (Messar 2007:108)
Beyond the weekly church meetings at which Fred Phelps has officiated since the inception of WBS, the central ritual in WBS since the 1990s has been picketing/protest activities. This activity, for which Westboro Baptist was to become infamous, actually had its roots in Phelps’ college days. While he was attending John Muir College in 1951 he began publicly preaching to students, condemning "sins committed on campus by students and teachers… promiscuous petting…evil language…profanity…cheating…teachers' filthy jokes in classrooms…pandering to the lusts of the flesh" ( “Religion: Repentance in Paradise” 1951). It was forty years later, in 1991, when this expression of opposition to homosexuality regained public visibility. WBS members alleged that openly homosexual behavior and accosting of local children was occurring in Tokeka’s Gage Park. They lodged official complaints and engaged in public protests. The church subsequently gained national notoriety in 1998 when it received extensive media coverage in conjunction with its picketing at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to death in Wyoming because he was a homosexual.
The condemnation of American soldiers and picketing of their funerals, which began in 2005, derived from Phelps’ belief that soldiers who participated in an army that included gays were fully complicit in sinful behavior. As WBS put it, “Therefore, with full knowledge of what they were doing, they voluntarily joined a fag-infested army to fight for a fag-run country now utterly and finally forsaken by God who Himself is fighting against that country ( Westboro Baptist Church, “FAQ”). The prominence of references to improvised explosive devices (IED) in Westboro rhetoric apparently can be traced to an incident in which what Westboro members regarded as an IED exploded outside of a church member’s home in 1995. The IED’s were therefore viewed as God’s punishment on America for attacking the church (Odell 2008:14). The WBS website states that “ .... The IED is God's weapon of choice in avenging Westboro Baptist Church by blowing America's kids to smithereens in Iraq. And the carnage has barely begun. Thus, their funerals are the forum of choice for delivering WBC's message of choice” ( Westboro Baptist Church, “FAQ”). WBS members’ rejection of American society has been further symbolized by displaying the American flag upside down, throwing it on the ground, and kicking it back and forth between members at picketing events.
The targets of WBS protest rituals have continuously expanded, and WBS claims to have organized several tens of thousands of protests across the U.S., and to a much lesser extent in other nations. The various types of alleged moral perfidy that WBS has protested indicate the scope of its condemnation of contemporary society: Matthew Shepard (homosexual), Holocaust Memorial (Jews killed Jesus), 9/11/2011 (God’s punishment on America), 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China (impudent and ungrateful Chinese), Pope Benedict XVI (pedophilia), Billy Graham (false prophet), Barack Obama (The Beast, Antichrist), Al Gore (famous fag pimp), Gordon B. Hinkley (lying false prophet), Catholic priests (vampires, draculas), Catholic Church (large, well funded pedophile group), Hinduism (idolatrous), and Islam (Mohammed was a demon-possessed whoremonger).
WBS is not affiliated with any other church or denomination and has been rejected by traditions with which it has claimed some connection, Primitive Baptists and Southern Baptists. Phelps was ordained by Reverend. B.H. McAlister, a Southern Baptist minister, in 1947, but WBS has no ties to the Southern Baptist tradition. It seems clear that the church was controversial from the outset. The first WBS service was held on November 27, 1955, but Phelps almost immediately lost most of the congregation and was forced to support himself financially by selling vacuum cleaners door to door. (Odell 2008:34).
The church is organizationally based in a circle of houses in a middle-class Topeka neighborhood. One house is the home in whichPhelps raised his family. He subsequently purchased neighbors’ homes to complete the circle. Membership in the church is estimated at less than one hundred. The vast majority of church membership consists of relatives in the Phelps family. Phelps and his wife bore 13 children; and the couple’s children subsequently themselves married and had children, creating a substantial pool of family members upon which to draw. Most of the offspring live in the family compound, and a number hold law degrees and work in the family law firm. However, several of Phelps’ children/grandchildren have repudiated Phelps’ teachings and left the church.
Phelps’ family, legal, and religious careers have overlapped in important respects. He was active politically prior to his mixing of religion and politics, running unsuccessfully for public office at the local, state and federal level as a Democrat during the 1990s. The Phelps Chartered Law Firm, which Phelps established in 1964 after receiving a law degree from Washburn University, has been lauded for its civic activities and also condemned as hostile and litigious. During the 1980s the firm took on a number of civil rights cases and received awards from African American community groups for its legal services on behalf of African American clients. At the same time, Phelps is estimated to have filed over 400 law suits by 1990, including a class-action law suit against Sears for failing to deliver a television set on schedule, a suit against then President Ronald Regan for sending an ambassador to the Vatican, and several suits against sitting judges and court reporters. (Odell 2008:34). As an outgrowth of this litigiousness, in1979 Phelps was permanently disbarred from practicing law in Kansas for inserting false information into his own affidavit in a lawsuit against a court reporter, although he remained eligible to practice law in federal courts for several years. For a time after Phelps was initially suspended from practicing law in Kansas, protest activity was funded by family children selling candy. In 1985, nine federal judges filed a complaint against Phelps, as well as several of his children, alleging that he had made false accusations against them. A resolution was reached in 1989 when Phelps agreed to permanently end his practice of law in the federal court system. The law firm apparently provided the majority of support for protest activity, with costs for faxes, telephone calls, and fliers that distribute their message running as high as $200,000 annually.
Issues and Challenges
The Westboro Baptist Church’s protest activities at funerals have drawn widespread condemnation, opposition, and counter measures (Brouwer and Hess 2007). Media coverage has been overwhelmingly hostile, and WBS has been declared “homophobic” by the Anti-Defamation League (Anti-Defamation League) and as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (Southern Poverty Law Center). By contrast, the church has few allies. WBS has been defended by the American Civil Liberties Union on the grounds of protected speech, and one church in Florida, Dove World Outreach Center, with a history of anti-Islamic, anti-abortion, and anti-homosexual rhetoric, offered support form WBC’s beliefs but not its practices.
The Church has been potentially vulnerable to civil and criminal actions on a variety of grounds. WBS could face loss of its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status if it were to be organized primarily for a non-religious purpose. The church did, in fact, face a partial challenge on these grounds in Kansas, but overall the church has avoided political advocacy of the kind that would disqualify it with the IRS. The church could have been prosecuted for engaging in “hate speech” that incited violence. As Britt (2010:652) noted, however, “religious cursing has become a political weapon that enjoys the protection of secularist legal understandings of law. As long as their curses avoid violation of laws against incitement or “fighting words,” they are immune from prosecution…” The church could also face time, place and manner constraints on its picketing activity at funerals. Indeed, more than forty states have enacted legislation that prohibits protesters from locating closer than 100 to 200 feet of a funeral (Ruane 2010). President George W. Bush signed into law in 2006 a similar provision for national cemeteries, the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act.
Although the courts have allowed WBS picketing to continue, WBS has met with counter-protest activity. While the protest against gays has brought public condemnation, the picketing of funerals and related defacing of the national flag have precipitated much greater hostility. The sensitivity of this issue is not lost on Westboro members. Timothy Phelps commented on this difference in the public response: “It’s because we’ve found their idol – and we’re pissing all over it. Fags aren’t their number one idol, yet. But the flag is” (Odell 2008:37). Demonstrators, often outnumbering church members, have engaged in counter-protests at a number of WBS picket sites. In addition, a motorcycle group composed primarily of military veterans, the Patriot Guide Riders, formed to provide a buffer between WBS picketers and funeral mourners (Patriot Guide Riders). In some cases of picketing and Phelps and members of WBS have been arrested on charges such as disorderly conduct, trespassing, failure to obey, verbal harassment and assault and battery. By and large, however, WBS members have complied with lawful orders, and there have been no significant confrontations with law enforcement. WBS and its members also have been the target of physical abuse, death threats, vandalism, and arson.
The most serious challenge to WBS funeral picketing came from Albert Snyder, father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in the line of military duty. Albert Snyder was outraged: “The Phelps targeted me and my family, by name, and they took away the last chance I had to bury my son. My only chance to bury Matt…. This is a funeral we’re talking about for God’s sake. What kind of society do we want if we can’t even bury our dead in peace? Nobody in the history of this country has ever done this at funerals… is nothing sacred?” He brought civil charges against WBS for intentionally inflicting emotional distress on the Snyder family through their picketing activity. Snyder won an $11 million judgment at trial, which was later reduced by the trial judge to $5 million. A federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia reversed the lower court decision, stating that the speech at issue was constitutionally protected. A variety of groups subsequently offered to pay the court costs that would have accrued to Snyder when the decision was reversed. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court, with a wide range of liberal and conservative law faculty, media groups, and civil liberties groups supporting the appellate court’s decision. All but two Attorneys General and 43 U.S. Senators filed amicus briefs in support of Snyder. However, in an 8-1 ruling, with only Justice Samuel Alito dissenting, the Supreme Court in Snyder v. Phelps affirmed the right of WBS to continue its controversial picketing activity. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that the speech involved was indeed “hurtful” and made little contribution to public discourse but that “As a nation we have chosen a different course – to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.” Following the Supreme Court decision, Albert Snyder responded, "My first thought was eight justices don't have the common sense God gave a goat. . . . We found out today we can no longer bury our dead in this country with dignity" (Barnes 2011). Westboro Baptist Church continues its protest campaign, announcing upcoming events on its website (“ Westboro Baptist Church, “Picket Schedule”). Both the federal government and some states have continue to control funeral protests by WBS; in 2012 both the federal government and the State of California passed laws restricting protests within 300 feet of funeral ceremonies. The future of the church remains unclear, however, as its membership is principally Phelps family members, there are few new recruits, and several Phelps children have withdrawn from the church.
Anti-Defamation League. n.d.. “ Westboro Baptist Church.” Accessed at http://www.adl.org/learn/ext_us/WBC/default.asp?LEARN_Cat=Extremism&LEARN_SubCat=Extremism_in_America&xpicked=3&item=WBC on 10 January 2012.
Barnes, Robert. 2011. “Supreme Court Rules First Amendment Protects Church’s Right to Picket Funerals.” Washington Post. 3 March. Accessed at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2011/03/02/AR2011030202548.html on 1 November 2011.
Britt, Brian. 2010. “Curses Left and Right: Hate Speech and Biblical Tradition.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 78:633-61.
Brouwer, Daniel and Aaron Hess. 2007. “Making Sense of ‘God Hates Fags’ and ‘Thank God for 9/11’:” A Thematic Analysis of Milbloggers’ Responses to Reverend Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.” Western Journal of Communication 71:69-90.
Messar, Anna Zwierz. 2007. “Balancing Freedom of Speech with the Right to Privacy: How to Legally Cope with the Funeral Protest Problem.” Pace Law Review 28:101-27.
Odell, Terran. 2008. God Hates Ambiguity: A Framing Analysis of Fliers from the Westboro Baptist Church. MA Thesis, California State University at Long Beach.
Patriot Guard Riders. n.d. “Patriot Guard Rider Mission Statement.” Accessed at http://www.patriotguard.org/ on 9 January 2012.
“Religion: Repentance in Paradise.” 1951. Time Magazine, 11 June. Accessed at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,814897,00.html on 10 January, 2012.
Ruane, Michael. 2010. Bikers Protest Westboro Baptist Demonstrators at Arlington Burial.” Washington Post. 4 October. Accessed at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2010/10/04/AR2010100406662.html on 10 January 2012.
Southern Poverty Law Center. n.d. “General Hate.” Accessed at
http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-files/ideology/general-hate on 10 January 2012.
David G. Bromley
12 January 2012