Megan Phelps-Roper did the unthinkable last week. The granddaughter of Fred Phelps—controversial leader of Westboro Baptist Church—packed her belongings into a few boxes and left Topeka, Kansas, for a small Midwestern town, leaving behind her family, her church, and her inflammatory picket signs.
In some ways, it's the last thing Phelps-Roper, 27, ever thought she would do. Just last year, she confessed to to a local Kansas newspaper that she was “all in” with her family’s small but infamous church. She began embracing more responsibility in the group, most notably becoming its social media front person, tweeting up to 150 tweets a day and appearing as a guest on a local radio talk show.
But Phelps-Roper told independent journalist Jeff Chu that things started to change for her when she met David Abitbol, a Jewish programmer. Their conversation centered on doctrinal differences between Judaism and Westboro’s theology. It took an unexpected turn when Abitbol brought up the text of a Westboro picket sign: “Death Penalty for Fags.” He asked her how to reconcile that position with Jesus’ teaching in John 8:7: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
“I thought it was funny he was quoting Jesus,” Phelps-Roper told Chu. “I realized that if the death penalty was instituted for any sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent. And that’s what Jesus was talking about.”
According to Chu, that conversation caused Phelps-Roper to question Westboro’s teachings on morality, the sinfulness of all human feelings, and the belief that only Westboro has the proper interpretation of Scripture. Eventually, the internal conflict drove her to pack up her life and leave her family. Her sister Grace joined her, and they currently live with their cousin, Libby Phelps-Alvarez, who left the church four years earlier. Phelps-Roper resurfaced online last week with a public announcement via Twitter and a blog post.
“We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people,” she wrote. “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.”
Westboro has been in the spotlight for their inflammatory protesting practices since 1991, and Megan has been there all along. Westboro members frequently protest against homosexuality in major cities using signs that read messages like: “Thank God for dead soldiers,” “God hates fags,” and “God is your enemy.”
The church has come under intense fire from the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. It has faced cases in federal court and the U.S. Supreme Court. The family, many of whom are lawyers, has won court cases but faces rejection from the mainstream Christian community. Both the Baptist World Alliance and the Southern Baptist Convention denounce Westboro.
According to the Kansas City Star, Phelps-Roper has picketed in 44 states and 240 cities since 1991. By leaving, she joins a small group of defectors who have been leaving Westboro since 2004, including her brother and uncle, well-known atheist Nate Phelps who left in 1980.
Defecting means neither Phelps-Roper nor her sister will be able to have contact with their family again. They’ve come under criticism from Westboro spokesman Steve Drain, who told the Kansas City Star the girls left because they wanted to “be of the world.”
“If they continue with the position that they have, those two girls, yeah, they’re going to hell,” he said. Similarly, their uncle Timothy Phelps accused them of leaving because they wanted to have extramarital sex.
I’ve tweeted Megan with an interview request to ask about her new life. I haven’t heard back yet, but if her Twitter feed offers any indication, she’s started a new job, blogs at Medium.com, and misses her family.
“We know that we can’t undo our whole lives,” she wrote. “What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on. That’s our focus. We hope … that the changes we make in our lives will speak for themselves.”