October 10, 2002 originally published
TOPEKA, Kan. Oct. 6 — Bearing the faces of Matthew Shepard and Laura Bush, signs reading phrases such as “CSU Fags” and “Fag Pimp” were displayed from the pulpit of the Westboro Baptist Church.
“Every time a little faggot sneezes, the Colorado State University, the president on down salutes them,” said Fred Phelps from the pulpit of a church comprised of nearly 60 people. “Shame on them, you need to be preached to, and I’m elected.”
He leaned over the pulpit pointing his finger and holding up documents and pictures of adversaries. His voice billowed as he justified his coming to areas such as CSU to preach.
Phelps is scheduled to bring his controversial message to Fort Collins Saturday outside Hughes Stadium before the CSU-Wyoming football game.
The congregation, composed of mostly family members, sat motionless and silent except for an occasional chuckle as Phelps filled the room with talk of fornication and graphic sexual metaphors. However, for Westboro Baptist Church the day started long before Phelps’s 11 a.m. sermon.
At 9 a.m., church members referred to their weekly schedule of pickets and lined themselves on sidewalks and street corners adjacent to other churches in the area.
“We picket to preach and spread our message that it’s not OK to be gay,” said Sam Phelps-Roper, a church member and grandson to Fred Phelps. “To make it an innocent alternative lifestyle is sending yourself to hell. We’re about simply spreading that message.”
They call it “crying against the altars,” which involves picketing other churches because of their message of love rather than hate, of mercy and grace rather than disdain and intolerance.
“We pray for them,” said Wesley Smith, pastor at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Topeka. “(Phelps is a) classic example of how religion can be abused and become a weapon. It’s very frightening.”
Churches have held counter-demonstrations and have rallied to oppose Phelps’ message, but many say that the best thing to do is ignore them.
“They have no influience on the community,” Smith said. “Saint David’s did counter-demonstrations on God’s love. We find their behavior, signs and mentality grievous and embarrassing. They have no influence; naturally no one takes them seriously.”
According to the Westboro Baptist Church Web site, leaders such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, have “turned to an impotent god that doesn’t exist.”
“‘God loves everyone’ is the big lie,” said Shirley Phelps-Roper, a member of the church and daughter of Fred Phelps. “(Other churches) pass ordinances and try every way to make us stop picketing,” she said.
The Westboro church sued another church because of an ordinance saying that picketers had to remain 90 feet away. They sued the church, and were then allowed to picket 50 feet from the building.
Picketing isn’t limited to the adults. Children are encouraged to join church members at pickets. Many go eagerly.
Zach Phelps-Roper is in the sixth grade. He, like many other children his age, likes to play video games and the piano. But every week before church, he joins his family members at pickets, often holding signs bearing phrases like, “Thank God For September 11th,” or “God Hates America.” At the age of 11, he already seeks to fulfill a call and sees himself on a mission.
“We need to warn these people about hell for eternity,” he said. “That’s where you’re going to go if you’re not going to repent.”
Zach is one of many children who rally at the pickets, standing holding signs, or playing with swords with their friends.
Many members of the Topeka community don’t support Phelps’ views and have grown tired of the picketing.
“I think in general people dislike it,” said Kyle McDonald, a senior studying computer information sciences at Washburn University. “Most disagree with how he’s going about things and what he has on his signs.”
The picketers are diligent and disperse themselves throughout the community so that there are several pickets going on at one time. Everyone in the congregation attends the pickets, including children and elderly.
“They’re out everyday rain or shine,” McDonald said. “I think it’s pretty disgusting. I wouldn’t be proud having my kids see what’s on his signs. A lot of people tend to ignore him, most just wish he’d leave.”
Nevertheless, the picketers remain unmoved and irrevocable, a seemingly permanent fixture to the streets and sidewalks of Topeka. They strategically place themselves and their signs to reach the greatest number of onlookers.
“You can’t help but not miss them,” said Gary Shewmake a community member of Topeka. “Personally, I wish they’d take their signs and pitch them. Phelps is basically what some people say is a cult. Nobody likes them.”