Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church known for its hateful and distasteful anti-gay protests, died Wednesday, March 19 at the age of 84.
The Kansas-based Church, comprised mostly of Phelps’ family, gained infamous notoriety for picketing the funerals of dead U.S. Soldiers, and for their inflammatory slogan, “God Hates Fags” written on their billboards. The members of the Westboro church claim that the deaths of the soldiers were due to America’s tolerance of the LGBT community. Along their anti-gay billboards are signs reading “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Thank God for 9/11”. Their movement inspired laws limiting protests at funerals. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the church was protected under the first amendment of the Constitution, and could not be sued for monetary damages for any pain they inflicted on the families of the dead.
Though the church is small and has very few members, they became known on an international level. Their message became so prominent and so powerful that even threatening to picket a funeral got them the attention they wanted, even if they never actually showed up.
The news is inundated with articles about the many terrible things the church has done. But here are some things we bet you didn’t know about the Westboro Baptist Church.
5. Westboro Baptist Church Threatens to Picket Lorde Concert
On March 21, the Westboro Baptist Church announced they would be picketing teenage New Zealand singer Lorde’s concert at Midland Theatre in Kansas City. The announcement on their website read, rather nonsensically, “New Zealand came forth with a young lassie that doesn’t have enough sense to put in a thimble. Now the world has elevated her to the status of an idol. Then the world began to weigh in. They think this and that and blah, blah, barf.” Not satisfied with picketing, the church also released their own version of “Royals”. Yes, it is painfully bad.
Lorde met these claims with disdain, taking to Twitter to respond with encouragements for her fans to wear rainbow clothing and to kiss same-sex protesters. Though the tweets have been deleted from her feed, Queerty took screenshots. The three tweets allegedly read, “hahaha omg just found out westboro baptist church are going to picket my show in kansas city… everyone wear rainbow clothing to that show… everyone try to kiss church members who are same sex as you they will so love it christmas comin early in kansas city…”
17-year-old Lorde is a staunch LGBT rights supporter.
4. Fred Phelps’ Son Ran Away From Home
Nate Phelps was the sixth of Fred Phelps’ 13 children. When he was 17 years old, he bought an old car from the security guard at his school and parked it far enough away from the Phelps house so that no one knew it was his. In the weeks leading up to his 18th birthday, he packed up his belongings bit by bit and hid them in the garage. On the night of his 18th birthday, Nate pulled up his car and loaded his belongings. When the clock struck 12, he left, and never looked back. He was so afraid of being found by his abusive father that he spent the first three nights of his freedom sleeping in a gas station bathroom.
He moved to South California, and remained, although not indoctrinated by the faith he left, a mild Evangelical Christian. It wasn’t until 9/11 that he began to question religion, and then, after reading Dawkins and Hitchens, turning away from it altogether.
Nate now lives in Calgary, and is the head of Recovering From Religion, an organization that supports people who have left a toxic religious situation like he has. He also is part of an atheist movement to build a community with feelings of familiarity similar to church organizations, but without the faith. He says that he realized when people who were suffering in similar toxic environments or people who were suffering because of the movements of the WBC began reaching out to him that he could help to make a positive impact and fight the legacy of hate that his family created.
When asked about what the church would look like when his father died, in an interview with Salon Nate said, “ I know there is a wellspring of righteous hatred and indignation in my father, and it seems never ending, and I know he has ultimate control over everyone in that environment. But I’ve seen enough evidence in the past few years from several of my siblings that it is very possible that they can maintain or continue on with some form or version of this same ideology that exists right now.”
3. A Man Bought The House Across The Street, Painted It Rainbow Colours
It’s not every day that house painting job gets international attention. But this isn’t just any paint job. And it certainly isn’t any house.
Aaron Jackson painted the house rainbow colours to send a message to the neighbors across the street. Those neighbours? The Westboro Baptist Church.
Jackson is one of the founders of Planting Peace, a not-for-profit which runs multiple grassroots campaigns and charities with the goal of spreading peace. The organization bought the for sale house for $83,000 US Dollars.
31-year-old Jackson said his inspiration came from a young boy. On Mother’s Day weekend in 2012, the WBO held a protest with signs that read “God hates homosexuals”. Nine-year-old Josef Miles held up his own sign in response. He had scrawled on a notepad, “God hates no one”. Curious about the Westboro Baptist Church, he searched it on Google Earth and saw the house across the street with a For Sale sign. It was then he decided he wanted to buy the house and paint it rainbow colours for a passionate pro-gay statement.
It’s fair to say that the Westboro Baptist Church members weren’t too pleased about this. One of the members of the family was seen snapping photos and taking videos. The church later sent an email response, according to The Star, saying “Think about it! This is not a novel idea — there are hundreds of similarly-painted houses around the world — the ONLY reason why this one is a story is because of WHERE it is! . . . God’s word doesn’t change, just because ‘culture has moved on.’ It’s not okay to be gay, it never was ok to be gay, and it never will be ok to be gay.”
The rainbow house, named Equality House, now has volunteers running programs and supporting equality and anti-bullying campaigns through fund-raising, and draws attention from passers-by on a regular basis.
2. A Lot of People Are Leaving Westboro Baptist Church (and Telling The World About It)
The Westboro Baptist Church is not large. In 2011 it had only 40 members. 20 members had left, three quarters of which were from the millennial generation. For a small, family-based church, the loss of members is devastating, especially when it comes to the future and continuation of the church. The choice to leave is heart-wrenchingly difficult. It means leaving your family behind, and, more often than not, having your family cut you off entirely. Members have left and then returned for this reason.
Former members like Lauren Drain have come out to the media, doing interviews and writing books about their time inside the church. When she was 14, her philosophy professor father decided to make a documentary about the church, but the family ended up converted and indoctrinated instead.
“The WBC is becoming less powerful over its members, but only if they question things for themselves,” Drain said. “Brainwashing is an extremely powerful thing, and if you don’t have a willingness to question things, it keeps you trapped inside.”
Drain wrote a book, Banished: A Memoir. Surviving My Years In The Westboro Baptist Church.
1. Including Fred Phelps’ Granddaughters
Megan Phelps-Roper was once seen as being grandfather Fred Phelps’ heir apparent, and her mother Shirley Phelps-Roper’s “right hand man”. In 2011, The Kansas City Star profiled the then 25-year-old as an intelligent, pretty everyday girl who likes to braid people’s hair and inform the people of the world that they are going to burn in Hell. Since the church’s first protest, Megan had picketed in 44 states and 240 cities, and was very active in picketing the funerals of dead US soldiers and victims of natural disaster. Megan would manage the church’s social media and online presence. She told the paper, “I’m here because I want to be here. Because I believe these things. Because I love these words. I’m all in.”
Two years later, 27-year-old Megan left the Westboro Baptist Church with her sister, Grace. In a blog post, Megan said, “We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people. Inflicting pain on others wasn’t the goal, but it was one of the outcomes. We wish it weren’t so, and regret that hurt. We know that we dearly love our family.”
Megan’s cousin and former best friend Libby Phelps Alvarez left the church before Megan and Grace in 2009, sneaking away when her parents attended a protest. Libby first had her doubts about the church when a friend’s husband died while in the military, and her family picketed the funeral. Libby did not go that time.
Libby told USA Today what she wanted her family to know ““I would tell them I love them and that people aren’t evil like we were taught,” she said. “And even though I am crying right now, life isn’t full of sadness and sorrow and disease and heartache like they told us. You can lead a happy and good life.”