(Photo: Se'bastien B. / Flickr) It is amazing that Fred Phelps is still alive. That he has not yet been beaten, stomped, clubbed, stabbed, shot or run down by a car is either a testament to the restraint of his fellow Americans, or is a straight-up miracle right out of his twisted scripture. America has created some epic bastards in its time, but few can measure up to the monstrous nature of Mr. Phelps.
You know who I'm talking about. Fred Phelps and his demented clan in Kansas constitute the Westboro Baptist Church. It is mostly a family affair, and is based entirely on hate. Phelps and his brood first made national news twelve years ago almost to the day when they protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the young man who was beaten and crucified on a Wyoming fence in 1998 because he was gay. Phelps protested the funeral, he said, because God despises homosexuality and has visited His wrath upon America for our tolerance of such "deviant" lifestyles.
The Westboro Baptist Church's detestation for homosexuality inspired their now-infamous website, GodHatesFags.com. Reading this site is like getting lost in a lunatic's attic. Phelps proclaims, with poor spelling firmly intact, "Since 1955, WBC has taken forth the precious from the vile, and so is as the mouth of God (Jer. 15:19). In 1991, WBC began conducting peaceful demonstrations opposing the f*g lifestyle of soul-damning, nation-destroying filth. america crossed the line on June 26, 2003, when the Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that we must respect sodomy. WBC's gospel message is your last hope."
Gay people are not the sole object of the WBC's wrath. Far from it. Phelps and his band of fiends held a protest at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC in 1996. During the protest, Phelps proclaimed, "Whatever righteous cause the Jewish victims of the 1930s-40s Nazi Holocaust had, (probably minuscule, compared to the Jewish Holocausts against Middle Passage Blacks, African Americans and Christians-including the bloody persecution of Westboro Baptist Church by Topeka Jews in the 1990s), has been drowned in sodomite semen. American taxpayers are financing this unholy monument to Jewish mendacity and greed and to filthy f*g lust. Homosexuals and Jews dominated Nazi Germany ... Jews are the real Nazis."
Westboro Baptist Church did not reach its apex of infamy until the downhill run of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. When dead soldiers began returning home to be buried by their families, Phelps and his people were there to protest. Holding signs reading "God Hates f*gs," "Thank God for 9/11," "Thank God for IED's," and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," Phelps continued to proclaim that America is being punished for its tolerance, and did so at the funeral ceremonies. A number of groups, including a motorcycle crew made up of veterans called the Patriot Guard Riders, have gone to great lengths to shield grieving families from these protests, but no matter what, Phelps and his people are there, quite literally pissing on open graves.
Under normal circumstances, putting one word to paper about Phelps and his church would be a disgraceful exercise that serves to do nothing more than deliver attention to something that deserves to be shunned. Today, however, is different, because Mr. Phelps and his activities are providing us with a chance to reinforce and celebrate the better angels of our national nature.
In 2006, Phelps and the WBC protested at the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq. The Snyder family brought a legal action against Phelps and his cohorts for their protest at the funeral of their son, and on Wednesday, the issue came before the United States Supreme Court. The Associated Press reported:
Supreme Court justices, in a rare public display of sympathy, strongly suggested Wednesday they would like to rule for a dead Marine's father against fundamentalist church members who picketed his son's funeral - but aren't sure they can. Left unresolved after an hour-long argument that explored the limits of the First Amendment: Does the father's emotional pain trump the protesters' free speech rights?
The difficulty of the constitutional issue was palpable in the courtroom as the justices weighed the case of Albert Snyder. His son died in Iraq in 2006, and members of a family-dominated church in Topeka, Kan., protested at the funeral to express their view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.
Margie Phelps, arguing the case for her family's Westboro Baptist Church, said the message of the protests at military funerals and elsewhere is, "Nation, hear this little church. If you want them to stop dying, stop sinning." Phelps' argument did not endear her to the justices, who asked repeatedly whether Snyder had any recourse.
"This is a case about exploiting a private family's grief," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who questioned whether the First Amendment should protect the church members.
Could a wounded soldier sue someone who demonstrates "outside the person's home, the person's workplace, outside the person's church ... saying these kinds of things: 'You are a war criminal,' whatever these signs say or worse?" Justice Elena Kagan asked.
Justice Samuel Alito wanted to know if the Constitution also would shield someone who delivers a mean-spirited account of a soldier's death to the serviceman's grandmother while she's leaving her grandson's grave. "She's waiting to take a bus back home," Alito imagined and someone approaches to talk about the roadside bomb that killed the soldier. "'Let me describe it for you, and I am so happy that this happened. I only wish I were there. I only wish that I could have taken pictures of it.' And on and on. Now, is that protected by the First Amendment?"
Fred Phelps is a toilet bug, but in his infinite miserableness, he gives to us the opportunity to reaffirm our most closely held national ideal. The First Amendment gives us all the right to say as we please, to espouse our views in the public sphere at whatever volume we wish. The vile and despicable nature of the Westboro Baptist Church reminds us how unbelievably hard this ideal is to live up to. Most of us would be sorely tempted to say, "Screw it, it's too much, let the hammer fall and let these bastards be silenced." But in doing so, we would betray what is best about us as a people.
Phelps is the highest exemplar of the American Taliban phenomenon, but he and his people have the right to speak out as they have, and though it twists the gut, it must be allowed to continue unmolested by legal interference. Counter-demonstrators are equally free to confront Phelps and his actions, and to drown them out by way of their own First Amendment rights. Also, and not for nothing, the right-bent nature of the current Supreme Court makes it perilous in the extreme for any case to come up that could potentially give the Justices cause to limit the rights of protesters in general. The Court must rule in favor of Phelps, even as they choke back bile while doing so.
Letting Phelps say and do as he pleases guarantees that you and I can do the same. For the first time in his wretched life, Mr. Phelps has given us a reason to celebrate his existence. He shows us that we are not him, that we do not consign others to silence and darkness because we disagree with them. We are better than him, and by letting him do his thing, we prove it beyond all doubt.