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Westboro Baptist Church Goes to Washington

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Fred Phelps and his Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church have long provoked LGBT Americans with their outrageous protests, featuring garish signs that proclaim "God Hates Fags." These protests were all the more enraging because they first appeared at the funerals of people who had died of AIDS complications. However, the Phelps clan remained a sideshow with little coverage from the mainstream media until they began appearing at funerals for military personnel killed in Iraq or Afghanistan with signs stating "Thank God for Dead Troops" and blaming any American tragedy on their perception that the United States condones and tolerates homosexuality.

In 2007 the family of a soldier whose funeral had been picketed by Westboro Baptist successfully sued the organization, claiming they had been emotionally traumatized by the protest, and won a judgment of nearly $11 million. Many welcomed any strike against the Phelps hatred machine, but some quietly worried about any infringement on First Amendment protections for freedom of speech -- protections that LGBT people had defended at great cost. Indeed, it did not come as a great surprise when a federal appeals court struck down the fine last year, citing the First Amendment.

A few days ago the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear an appeal of the case. In a wildly polarized America, the Phelps clan will soon be standing before the Supreme Court presenting themselves as a band of religious freedom fighters. What is discomforting is that Westboro Baptist might actually have a case that could force liberals to grudgingly admit that free speech must remain free, regardless of how hateful it might be.

The Advocate spoke with the son of Fred Phelps, Nate Phelps (pictured), who left both the church and his family behind at age 18 and is now actively speaking out about the abuse he and his siblings suffered growing up in Westboro Baptist.

The Advocate: Do you think what the Westboro Baptist Church does is constitutionally protected speech?

Nate Phelps: Well, I think as we understand it in America, what the family does during their pickets is actually protected. The last time the Supreme Court visited this issue in a major way was when there were protests at abortion clinics. The court was very reluctant to restrict those actions, only saying the protesters had to stay back a certain distance. But it's correct that the court should rule again on the issue now because no one ever imagined that people would be showing up to funerals protesting. The role of the Supreme Court is to revisit law as new circumstances arrive.

Do you think that reaching the Supreme Court has been a goal for the Phelps family?
Anything they can do to get more ears on their message, they'll do. That was their mantra when they initially lost the case -- "For $10.8 million [the amount the court initially fined the organization] you can't buy the amount of publicity we just got."

What are the chances that the Phelps family will win the case?
I think that both sides will claim victory, but in the end, I'm not clear what kind of latitude the Supreme Court has in the scope of this case. Technically, the only issue before them is whether the $5 million fine [the amount initially sought by the soldier's family] will stand. But I actually do think they will rule on the larger issue and I hope there will be some kind of limit put on the protests. Whatever the Supreme Court rules, the Old Man [Fred Phelps] will claim victory.

Did your father encourage his children to become lawyers?
He required it of them. You didn't stay in the family and fight the issue of whether or not to become a lawyer. It was so extreme that two of my sisters didn't perform well enough on the LSATs to get into Washburn University (where all the other children went to law school) so the Old Man changed the schedule of the church services so that the girls could drive down into another state and attend another, easier law school without missing church.

What was the first lawsuit the church brought against its enemies?
When the city of Topeka started to try to limit the behavior of the Westboro Baptist Church in the early '90s, the church sued the city on several different occasions and won every time. They were able to get attorney fees from the city that supported the church. My father's always used this technique to fight back when people opposed him.

Is there a chance that liberals will be forced to defend your family in this case?

I think a lot of people are basically saying that, as distasteful as it is for them to agree with the Westboro Baptist Church, they want to see them win this because the sanctity of freedom of speech and religion is so important.

You're going to Topeka, where the Westboro Baptist Church is headquartered, to give a series of talks in April and May. Why?
I want to get more visibility so that we can change the existing laws relative to child abuse by religion, which would cover things like children not getting medical care or being abused in fundamentalist sects. I will be speaking at the Metropolitan Community Church on April 24 and at the Million Fag March on May 1.

You're a straight man. What's your message to the gay people you'll be speaking to in Topeka?
Part of me wants to apologize to them. Part of me wants to explain to them why my family is the way it is. And part of me wants to talk about what the right reaction to these pickets ought to be. I think what the Patriot Guard has done in terms of the military funerals has been really positive instead of just lashing out. That's what my family wants.

Why does your family thrive on the hostility and rage directed toward them?
Hostility convinces them that what they're doing is right. They believe an angry response proves them right. But psychologically it's what they learned as children: Piss people off and there's a kind of visceral satisfaction to what you get in return.

What would you suggest people do when your family shows up at events?
It starts before they show up. When you find out that they're planning to come to protest, get a group of counterprotesters that are there to counter the message. Use the event to rally the community instead of just reacting. If gay people can stand with dignity in the face of that kind of hatred and counter it, it brings pride.

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