POSTED ON NOVEMBER 14, 2007:
The Devil Went Down to Picket
And not even a $10.9 million lawsuit could stop him
Apparently, the war in Iraq, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, destructive wildfires and every other bad thing that's befallen our nation in recent years are a direct punishment from an angry God for America's preoccupation with certain seafoods.
"Shrimp, crab, lobster, clams, mussels, all these are an abomination before the Lord," says one church group.
Quoting the prohibition found in Leviticus 11:9-12 against the consumption of any seafood without fins and scales as "unclean" and "abomination," the "God Hates Shrimp" group continues its call to national repentance thus:
"We call upon all Christians to join the crusade against Long John Silver's and Red Lobster. Yea, even Popeye's shall be cleansed. The name of Bubba shall be anathema. We must stop unbelievers from destroying the sanctity of our restaurants."
The zealous church group is known to picket outside such drive-ins of debauchery with signs reading "God Hates Shrimp" and "Pinch the Head, Suck the Tail, Burn in Hell."
Actually, not really.
While there is a website--www.godhatesshrimp.com--espousing such teachings, it's only a very funny satire of a not-so-funny group.
The real life basis of the parody is the so-called "Westboro Baptist Church," based out of Topeka, Kan.
The group has made national and international news headlines for its practice during the past few years of traveling around the nation to picket the funerals of fallen soldiers with signs reading "God Hates Fags," "Thank God for IEDs," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and other charming catchphrases, claiming the death and suffering befalling those soldiers and their families are God's punishment on America for its toleration of homosexuality.
Most recently, though, their antics landed them in the public eye when a federal court in Maryland ruled against them in a lawsuit filed by a grieving father of a fallen Marine.
The jury found Westboro Baptist Church and its ringleaders--"the Rev." Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebecca Phelps-Davis, liable for invasion of privacy and intent to inflict emotional distress, awarding Albert Snyder, father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, $10.9 million in damages.
Based on financial statements they filed with the court in relation to the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett commented that the amount "far exceeds the net worth of the defendants."
"It is the sincere hope of Mr. Al Snyder that this suit will spark similar legal actions against Mr. Phelps wherever he seeks to inflict harm upon the memory of our heroes and their families," reads a website the Snyder family created in remembrance of their son, at www.matthewsnyder.org.
"He was a hero and he was the love of my life," said the Marine's father.
In light of the judge's comments about the penalty outweighing the group's ability to pay, UTW contacted Westboro Baptist Church's spokesperson, Shirley Phelps-Roper, to inquire about the verdict and its implications for their future activities.
"Isn't that hilarious?" she said when asked about the ruling, as if this reporter were in on the joke.
In response to the apparent failure to understand how slandering a fallen Marine and insulting his family in their grief is funny, Phelps-Roper commenced with an impromptu, convoluted and force-fed sermon in which she compared the verdict against WBC to the imprisonment experienced by the prophet Jeremiah when he denounced the sin of the king of Judah.
Phelps-Roper elaborated that the group had long been a target of "persecution" for ITS efforts, so they weren't surprised, and aren't discouraged, by the verdict.
"For 17 long years, we have trafficked across this nation, and if you blog our names, we're counting more and more vile, vicious words against us," she said.
(And yes, she said "blog." Maybe they think God hates Google, too.)
Someone in Oklahoma probably wrote at least some of those "vile, vicious words," after they picketed the funeral of Army Specialist Jared D. Hartley in Newkirk two years ago after he'd fallen in battle in Iraq.
Their newly created infamy in Oklahoma prompted several state lawmakers to file legislation to prevent the families of other fallen soldiers from being subjected to the same obscenity in the future.
In March of 2006, after the Democrat and Republican caucuses of both houses of the Legislature played a few rounds of "Musical Author" against each other to make sure their respective party could take credit for the bill (it was an election year, after all), Tulsa's Democrat Sen. Mary Easley and Moore's Republican Rep. Paul Wesselhoft wound up with the honors as principal authors on a law that prohibits picketing within 500 feet of a funeral within one hour before or after the service.
Sen. Mike Mazzei, R-Bixby, and Rep. Wade Rousselot, D-Okay, had also previously been authors on versions of the proposed law.
Not to minimize the efforts of any of the other lawmakers involved, but Wesselhoft was arguably the most vocal and public in his efforts to cripple the group's hate speech in Oklahoma.
"To demonstrate, yell hate speech and judge people's souls in the middle of a ceremony in which a distraught and grieving family is at its most vulnerable is revolting, vulgar and vomitous," he said when he introduced his version of the bill.
He added, "It is heartbreaking, and not ever right. Never."
As a retired pastor and U.S. Army chaplain, the lawmaker has conducted countless military funerals just like the ones desecrated by the cult from Kansas.
So, Wesselhoft took it personally, and on more than one level.
Before the bill took effect, though, the Westboro zealots would make it even more personal.
While the bill was making its way through the legislative gauntlet, Phelps and his minions caught wind of Wesselhoft's efforts to thwart their plans to terrorize grieving families and decided to picket outside his church, the First Southern Baptist Church of Del City, during Sunday services.
Since he made his intentions known to the public well in advance, Phelps and his followers were met with droves of counter-demonstrators when they arrived, who outnumbered them and drowned out much of their name-calling against Wesselhoft.
Phelps-Roper, who sometimes acts as the group's lawyer as well as spokesperson (her father could have acted in that capacity several years ago, but he's been disbarred), vowed that they would see Oklahoma's new law, and others like it in other states, repealed on First Amendment grounds, but no such legal challenge has taken place.
Their defense in the Maryland lawsuit was on the same grounds of free speech.
Phelps-Roper never quite answered when asked how the group intended to pay the nearly $11 million award to the Snyder family.
"First, don't count your chickens before they're hatched," she said.
"Second, the Lord our God owns the cattle on a thousand hills," she added.
Phelps-Roper boasted that the group has, since the verdict, made new picket signs reading "Thank God for the $10.9 million."
At the time of the verdict, the head of the Phelps clan said they planned to appeal the verdict, but Phelps-Roper told UTW that God would avenge them if the appeal failed, pointing to current events as her evidence.
"California is burning right now, and it happened the same day that the trial started," she said.
But, Maryland is on the opposite side of the continent. Why would God show his disapproval of the trial by allowing a disaster almost 3,000 miles away?
"So stupid people like you would ask ignorant questions like that," she rebutted, without elaboration.
In Wesselhoft's view, that "vengeance" isn't likely to be necessary, though.
"I'm very pleased that the victim in this won the award, but I know it's being appealed, and it will probably go to the Supreme Court, and the Westboro cult will probably win this on First Amendment grounds," he told UTW.
The lawmaker noted that he is not an attorney, but from having consulted with legislative attorney's in the drafting and fine-tuning of his bill to make it as constitutionally air-tight as possible, his understanding of the Constitution leads him to the conclusion that the group would probably win the legal battle, eventually.
"Freedom of speech is a sacred thing and a wonderful right, but you can't have the blessing without the curse, and that means we have to allow Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and this group to express themselves," said Wesselhoft.
If he's wrong, though, the preacher-turned-lawmaker said he's afraid of what Phelps and his followers might do.
"Quite frankly, I think they're dangerous," he said.
"This is an organization that could strike out violently against the government. They're quite capable of blowing up a courtroom if the verdict goes against them. Just because we haven't seen them do this doesn't mean they won't," Wesselhoft warned.
In his view (and likely anyone else's who follows the group's antics), WBC is no different than the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas and the followers of Jim Jones who died by mass-suicide in Guyana in the 1970s. The only difference being that those groups' notoriety didn't peak until after the situation deteriorated into bloodshed.
"They're obviously a cult--there is every indication and behavior there," Wesselhoft said of WBC.
While his legal acumen might not have a law degree to back it, the same isn't true of his knowledge of what constitutes a "cult."
Through the course of earning his master's in theology from Southern Nazarene University and his master's in divinity, with a minor in Sociology, from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Wesselhoft said he specialized in the study of cults, and WBC fits the textbook definition.
"Theologically and sociologically, they fit the definition. They have a central charismatic figure, there is the early indoctrination of children and most of the members come from the same family," he said.
Indeed, the "Rev." Fred Phelps has run the show from the beginning.
According to numerous news reports from the Topeka area, the "church" has about 70 confirmed members, 60 of whom are related to Phelps through blood or marriage.
Phelps' longtime friend Bill Hockenbarger and his children and grandchildren also comprise some of the membership of the group.
Because Phelps won't allow members to marry outside of the church, there are at least two marriages between the Phelps and Hockenbarger clans, likely more to follow as the grandchildren start to come of age.
Also, all or most of the members of WBC live in the nine houses immediately surrounding or adjacent to Fred Phelps' home, which houses the church "meeting hall."
The 10 houses are fenced-off from the rest of the neighborhood (those few neighbors who haven't moved away, anyway), creating a relatively secure compound for the group.
"The only thing I don't see in that church is the sexual craziness you see in other cults, unless they keep it secret," Wesselhoft added.
If there is no secret to keep in that regard, it's likely because it might undermine the core message taught by Phelps, which is that everyone living in the world outside their compound is hated by God because we're constantly engaging in orgies of deviant sex, and only those learning the "word of God" at the feet of Fred Phelps are pure and safe from God's wrath.
And while hatred of Fred Phelps and ridicule for his teachings is the natural, common response of most people who hear of their antics, as Wesselhoft explains, compassion might be a more appropriate response to those he's brainwashed all their lives.
"They really have no hope," said the lawmaker and retired pastor, in view of Phelps' well-documented success in driving out any capacity in his children, grandchildren and other followers to empathize with anyone outside their fold.
"At least, not unless they grow up and get out of that cult and are maybe exposed to some other view," Wesselhoft added.
With his comments in view, Phelps-Roper was asked how long she's believed as she does.
"Only since I've been able to read," she answered.
So, why is homosexuality the Big Enchilada? Why is it the end-all, be-all of all sin, especially when Jesus himself seemed more concerned and offended with hypocrisy and with people who tried to use God as a weapon to serve their own agendas?
"Why don't you tell me, you mocking, scoffing, brutish dolt? Why don't you crack open a Bible for once in your life? Then you won't ask those kinds of stupid questions," she answered.
Have you ever listened to any other teachings besides your fathers? Have you ever attended a sermon or Bible study run by anyone other than your father, or who disagreed with him on any particular point, and might have conveyed a different message about God?
"That's like asking if I've ever gone to a church that isn't Christian," Phelps-Roper answered.
"Look, if there were any other churches preaching the true word of God, they would have contacted us and joined us," she said.
"As for other so-called 'churches,' I don't want to look too closely. Even though they say they serve God, they have their own little idols they worship," Phelps-Roper added.
Wesselhoft said there was a technical theological term to sum up her view: "Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus," which means "Outside (our) church there is no salvation."
While this idea of holding a monopoly on God's favor is seen in its most extreme and ugly form through the belligerence and lack of empathy displayed by Phelps-Roper and the rest of her father's victims, Wesselhoft said it was not at all uncommon.
"All of us--people of faith--need to be cautious of the temptation of being cultic. Whatever your background is, there is always the temptation to think 'If you're not a part of our church, you have no access to salvation or to God,'" he said.
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