Fred Phelps, clergyman, is on a crusade

By Annie Gowen
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 12, 1995; 12:00 AM

TOPEKA, KAN. -- The Day-Glo signs are strung out like rosary beads along the walkway to the church. "Thank God for AIDS," reads one. "Fags Burn in Hell," says another.

Parishioner Randy Debenham pauses in the chill of the early November morning, his three small children clinging to him, spruced up in their Sunday best.

"We don't always get singing," says Debenham with a pained smile, gesturing to three nearby picketers, who are serenading the good people of First Lutheran Church with "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," their mouths as round as Christmas carolers'. "Sometimes they'll be cursing," Debenham says. "But most of the time they just stand there quietly and hold their signs. It hasn't been too violent, except for the time they tried to beat up our pastor."

On the picket line a man has caught sight of Debenham and moves closer. The Rev. Fred Waldron Phelps is tall and clad in a parka zipped up so that all that shows are his eyes and a circle of reddened face. The talking coat begins to yell.

"Sodom! That's a sodomite church!" The voice is hoarse and Southern and preacherly all at once. "It's a leper colony. Unclean! Unclean!"

Debenham sighs. "Being a Christian has not always been a completely effortless thing, and I'm not sure it should be," he says. "But Fred Phelps makes it particularly difficult."

Just then the carillon bells at Christ the King Catholic Church nearby begin to peal. Yet another gay-smooching house of worship to be picketed. The anti-homosexual crusaders start to shuffle off in that direction -- men, women, children, placards. It's 8:27 a.m. on a sunny Sunday, and Fred Phelps and his followers have just begun their morning rounds on behalf of God, morality and hate.

We are in Week 230 of the siege of Topeka, otherwise known as the Great Gage Park Decency Drive, which is what the Rev. Fred Phelps, disbarred lawyer, calls his four-year-old battle against homosexuality.

Since June 1991, the Phelps family -- Fred, wife Margie, 9 of their 13 children, and 40 grandchildren -- have held the ordinarily quiet Kansas capital in their manic thrall, with constant picketing and a daily scattershot fax campaign so vicious and relentless that it has inspired a state statute against fax harassment.

"This community is being held hostage by a crazy man," says Russ Ptacek, a gay local news producer who says he was outed by Phelps in 1991. Indeed, as Phelps proudly notes, when CNN shows video of anti-gay protesters on segments discussing the Colorado exclusionary amendment against gay rights now on the Supreme Court docket, it is Phelps, not any anti-gay Coloradans, whom they show.

"He's an icon of hate," says Ptacek.

Phelps pickets funerals of AIDS victims. He pickets gay rights marches and Gay Pride parades. "Hate Is a Bible Value," his bumper stickers proclaim. Sexual slurs trip off his tongue as easily as the N-word did off Mark Fuhrman's.

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