'God Blew Up the Troops'

Bill Barnette from Pennsylvania shows his support for U.S. troops next to a church group displaying other sentiments.
Bill Barnette from Pennsylvania shows his support for U.S. troops next to a church group displaying other sentiments. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006

Micaiah Phelps-Davis stood across Georgia Avenue NW from the main gate of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, one of a dozen protesters. Squinting in yesterday's late-afternoon sun, he gazed at the hospital and said of the wounded U.S. soldiers inside: "I hope they go to hell. Yup, God's going to kill them all."

Micaiah is 14.

"I'm with my mom," he said, gesturing at a cluster of pickets. "Right there," he said, pointing to a woman holding two signs, one of them reading "GOD BLEW UP THE TROOPS." Micaiah said, "That's my mom."

An eighth-grader, Micaiah was the youngest of the demonstrators who came to Washington yesterday from a small, independent Kansas church, Westboro Baptist, whose believers have stirred anger across the nation in recent months, picketing at funerals for troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They show up on TV newscasts from time to time with placards bearing virulent anti-gay slogans. They think God is punishing the United States, killing and maiming soldiers, because the country tolerates homosexuality. As a result of the picketing, several state legislatures have passed bills restricting protests at funerals or tightening existing limits, and lawmakers in more than a dozen other states are considering such measures.

The Westboro protesters, led by their 76-year-old pastor, Fred Phelps, came to picket on Capitol Hill against a proposed federal law limiting funeral protests. Then they marched to Walter Reed.

"I'm very proud of him," Rebekah Phelps-Davis, 45, said of her son Micaiah. She is Fred Phelps's daughter. "What he has done, early in life, is chosen to follow the word of God. . . . He has listened all the years of his life to the word of God, and he has learned." She said he has learned, among other things, this: "Every soldier in that building has been maimed by the Lord -- a direct judgment upon this nation for its perversions and its rejection of His word."

Across the street, in front of the hospital gate, stood 20 or so counterprotesters, members of the Washington chapter of a group that goes by the name of its Web site, They are dedicated to conservative political principles. Their placards read "GOD BLESS OUR SOLDIERS" and "THANK YOU WALTER REED FOR HELPING OUR HEROES HEAL."

They heard the Westboro protesters shouting "God hates America" and answered with a chant of: "U-S-A! . . . U-S-A!"

"All the stuff they're talking about, homosexuality and everything, it's really not an issue with me," said Jim Melville, 64, a Free Republic member. "It's that they're carrying their message against these guys in that hospital. They can believe whatever they want. It's a free country. I just don't like it happening here, in front of these troops."

Another member, Buford Demming, 48, said: "You cannot get any lower than this. Lowest of the low. Even some of the liberal groups, the antiwar crowd, I don't think it would even occur to them to protest at a funeral or someplace like this."

Phelps and his followers have shown up with their placards at soldiers' funerals in Maryland, Nebraska, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky and elsewhere. Yesterday, he said: "They are not heroes. They chose to fight for a sodomite nation. . . . God almighty has killed these soldiers to inflict pain upon an evil nation, a severe stroke of divine judgment, retribution and vengeance."

Phelps, 6-foot-3 and frail, wore dark sunglasses and a University of Kansas Jayhawks windbreaker. "I am delivering a message from God almighty to this evil nation, and at your peril do you ignore it," he said.

Three counterprotesters sat nearby on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, revving their engines to deafening effect, drowning out the chants of Phelps's flock. The pastor quoted from Bible verses, then stood for a while, holding a placard. It read "THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS."

On his Harley, Ben Stagg, 47, turned off the engine and looked at one of Phelps's followers, a young woman whose placard read "AMERICA IS DOOMED."

"The Bible says Jesus loves me," Staggs told her, shaking his head. "The sad thing is, it says he loves you, too."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company