Features

Banning a bully

Religion | States move to keep protester Fred Phelps away from soldiers' funerals

Issue: "Faculty follies," April 29, 2006

Army Sgt. Daniel L. Sesker would have celebrated his 23rd birthday on April 15 had not insurgents in Iraq detonated an improvised explosive device near his convoy on April 6 near the Iraqi city of Tikrit. Sesker, a gunner in the convoy, was killed in the blast. Instead of celebrating his birthday from a distance, his family buried his body on April 18 in his hometown, Ogden, Iowa. Locally, schools flew their flags at half-staff.

Self-styled Baptist preacher Fred Phelps had a different message. The leader of "Westboro Baptist Church" in Topeka, Kan., wanted to send a group to protest Sesker's funeral. Mr. Phelps' message is as clear as it is biblically unprincipled-he rejoices in the deaths of American soldiers who fight to protect a nation that he says promotes homosexuality.

But thanks to a last-minute bill signed into law by Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack fewer than 24 hours before Sesker's funeral, the grieving family didn't have to face Mr. Phelps' pickets during the funeral. The legislature, aware of Mr. Phelps' fascination with crashing funerals, rushed through a bill that would prevent groups from protesting within 500 feet of a funeral. One violation would earn a misdemeanor. Repeat offenders could be prosecuted as felons.

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The new law didn't stop Mr. Phelps' group from traveling from Kansas to Iowa to protest the soldier's funeral. (They've consistently protested soldier funerals since last summer.) After respecting the 500-foot perimeter, Mr. Phelps' congregants-mostly related to the leader by blood or marriage-headed to the Iowa statehouse where a handful protested what they've called the "ignominious, Bible-dumb, pandering, demagogic Iowa legislature."

But lawmakers across the country are signaling they'd rather have Mr. Phelps tote his fluorescent signs outside their offices than at soldiers' funerals. More than 25 states are considering or have passed measures similar to Iowa's. Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican, has sponsored a similar bill in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Phelps' group started protesting funerals last summer with a variety of placards including one that read, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." Mr. Phelps, who had theological training at John Muir Junior College in Pasadena, Calif., started his Westboro cult in 1955 after a Baptist church kicked him out; Westboro is not associated with any Baptist denomination. Since then Mr. Phelps' group has grown around his family's 10-home compound in Topeka; he doesn't allow members to marry outside of the congregation.

Westboro came to prominence when its members protested at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student murdered by two other men. Mr. Phelps' crew traveled to New York City shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to protest the rescue efforts. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Westboro protesters carried placards reading, "Thank God for Sept. 11." More recently, the 76-year-old demagogue has opened up a special section on his "God Hates Fags" website titled, "Thank God for Katrina."

MOUSSAOUI: 'I am at war'

Mr. Phelps' message is that American debauchery has led God to smite the nation. In his Amen Corner stands would-be al-Qaeda hijacker Zacarius Moussaoui.

Mr. Moussaoui couldn't hold back his feelings after jurors in Virginia said the convicted terrorist would be eligible for the death penalty. "You'll never get my blood. God curse you all," said the French citizen, lashing out at jurors who returned the decision on April 3. Mr. Moussaoui had been called a possible "20th Hijacker" because his arrest on an immigration violation in August 2001 kept him from participating in the 9/11 murders.

During his trial Mr. Moussaoui has become known for his outrageous outbursts. He has characterized the United States as a nation of "homosexual crusaders" and has linked his desire to kill Americans to his devout Islamic belief. Asked why he would lie to FBI investigators who could have stopped the slaughter of thousands, he responded, "Because I am al-Qaeda. Because I am at war with this country."

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