As someone who spent her formative years in Topeka, Kan., I’m familiar with Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps and his followers single out other religious and ethnic groups, but are best known for their belief that homosexuals are to blame for all of the world’s ills, including the AIDS epidemic and the War in Iraq. Their hate knows no age and has no boundaries.
The church – a term I use loosely because they are in no way affiliated with any Baptist Church institution – gained national notoriety when they protested at the funeral of Wyoming hate crime victim Matthew Shepard. Since then, they have taken to picketing funerals of fallen soldiers across the country, waving signs that carry messages like “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
Lawsuits and court cases are nothing new to the Westboro community, but losing them is. Yesterday a jury in Baltimore awarded the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder nearly $11 million after finding Phelps and his two daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis, liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress. The win is a moral victory for the Snyder family and other families who have incurred the wrath of Phelps and his followers. Whether the ruling sticks remains to be seen. Phelps plans to appeal and many constitutional law experts believe his appeal has merit.
People have their stereotypes of Kansas and Phelps and his followers do nothing more than tarnish the image of the thousands of great people who live there. My best friend, a native Topekan, sums it up this way:
“It’s funny because the new girl in our office was asking me about them (the Westboro Baptist Church). It made me realize that I just don’t notice them anymore. It’s horrible to say, but they just sort of blend in. I guess we’re all just used to them here in Topeka. It’s when I see them in other communities that it really bothers me. I hate that it’s the one thing Topeka is known for.”
I hate that this group thrives on the attention that they are now getting. What we all see as a defeat, Phelps sees as a victory for his cause. People in Topeka, who have tried time and again to stop Phelps and his followers, have thrown up their hands in defeat and have taken to ignoring them. Will more lawsuits and counterprotests against the Westboro community finally silence their hate? Or if we, as an American people, ignore them, will they just go away?
What do you think?