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.
"Fag is a good Bible word, don't forget," he says.
"Well . . ." Rev. Phelps pauses for a minute, thinking. "Maybe not in the King James Version." Clearly, he is having fun.
Most of the churches he targets are not gay churches or churches with gay pastors or churches that advocate gay causes. They tend to be mainstream places of worship that, in Phelps's view, condone homosexuality simply through their refusal to condemn homosexuality. Sometimes his rationale is more opaque; he sees "love thy neighbor" as an invitation to sodomy.
When Maya Angelou came to town to give a reading late last year, Phelps supporters surrounded her limousine, accusing her of somewhow promoting a "militant homosexual agenda," chanting obscene epithets and waving signs. The poet was so upset by the encounter that she canceled a reading in nearby Emporia and is not expected back to the state anytime soon.
Phelps and his followers have appeared on talk shows like "Rolonda" and "Jenny Jones." They love funerals because of the emotional incendiary potential. They picketed the funeral of Bill Clinton's mother because the president supports gay rights, and caused a near riot at the funeral of gay journalist Randy Shilts when an angry mob pelted them with eggs and excrement.
It is a gangrenous crusade that would be easily dismissable as rantings from the lunatic fringe, except for two things. The first is that Phelps and his followers are testing the public's commitment to free speech, free association and freedom of religion. Phelps is both well funded and litigious, and several ongoing court actions -- he is scheduled to be sentenced this week for disorderly conduct -- may well eventually wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The second reason is that his tirades, and the public reaction to them, have raised an uneasy issue here. Almost no one in Topeka claims to approve of Fred Phelps's methods, but public officialdom in this conservative prairieland has been at times curiously slow to condemn his message.
"I'm afraid there are a lot of people who secretly in their heart of hearts agree with the Phelpses, and don't really want them to be stopped," says Judy Miller of the city's Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Bob Layne, rector of a large local Episcopal church, agrees: "It is my great sadness that so many in Topeka have stayed silent."
Take Butch Felker. He calls Phelps rude but won't flat out call him wrong.
"The Bible says homosexuality is a sin," he says.
Butch Felker is the mayor of Topeka. Phelps's Nemesis
"Kansas used to be known for the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy," says Joan Hamilton, the Shawnee County district attorney. "Now, Fred's out there calling us Sodom City, U.S.A." Hamilton has won plaudits as the first politician brave enough to take Phelps on, lodging criminal charges against the family ever since she took office in early 1993.
Hamilton's wholesome Midwestern visage is well known to Topekans, appearing as it does on Fred Phelps's handmade signs underneath two Devil horns. During her tenure as district attorney, she has made a name for herself as a workaholic and passionate crusader for victims' rights, particularly in cases involving violence against children, domestic abuse -- and Fred Phelps.
Hamilton, 45, became the lead character in this bit of guerrilla theater when she ran for district attorney in 1992 as the underdog candidate, on a platform that included a promise that she would faithfully prosecute the Phelps family for any criminal activity. She has pursued her campaign with zeal.
"It is too evil to ignore," Hamilton says from her office in the Shawnee County Courthouse. "Along with their signs, they're very abusive to people when they walk by. We're talking horrible things. They call women whores' in front of their husbands and boyfriends.
Phelps denies that he or his followers ever cross the bounds of civility or decency. He does not deny the intensity of his hatred for homosexuals. God hates them too, he says. "
Over the years, the level of animosity between Phelps and Hamilton has become intensely personal. Phelps and his children picket Hamilton's home nearly every Sunday, sometimes twice, serenading her and her three children with a five-verse song written in her honor, to the tune of "The Band Played On." ("When Joan ran for office, she said she was going to run us out/ She played the Gestapo, and now she has egg on her big pig snout.") They picket her husband's law office. Hamilton calls Phelps a sex-obsessed, narcissistic congenital liar. Phelps calls Hamilton a "depraved grub woman" and "a blubber-belly, satanic, cloven-hooved fat lady."
In one of the most dramatic incidents in the ongoing drama -- which one of Hamilton's lieutenants characterizes as "a death match" -- Phelps somehow obtained an e-mail message Hamilton sent her husband on Valentine's Day, discussing the intimate details of her, and her husband's, extramarital affairs: "You have held my one-night stand over my head for years and years and at least Syd is thousands of miles away. Marie is in this town and it wasn't any one night stand."
Delighted, Phelps faxed the letter all over the state. Soon a new placard appeared at protests: "Joan + Syd."
Hamilton was not amused.
Some months later, she sent sheriff's deputies to raid the church headquarters and confiscate the fax machines and other office equipment as evidence against Phelps. Many of the items were returned by court order the following evening, but not before Phelps managed to get out his daily faxes anyway. For her pains, Hamilton was dubbed, in the faxes, a "forked tongue she-devil." A Chewing Out
"She's a miserable tyrant," says Phelps, brooding in his office. He is talking, of course, about Hamilton. "She's an evil woman, in the lying genre of Jezebel, the wicked wife of the king of Israel, Ahab."
Phelps, 65, is a tall and rangy man with a penchant for nylon jogging suits. Even in winter, he struts around the house in shorts that reveal his tanned runner's legs, the musculature of which he takes a rather unseemly pride in. His hair, which he dyes, runs a gamut of fronds that are red and blond and gray. His light blue eyes can seem a tad off kilter sometimes, so it seems as if he's looking at you even when he isn't.
Since 1956, the Phelps family has lived intermittently in the combination sanctuary and living quarters of the Westboro Baptist Church, of which he is a founder. It is a church without much of a congregation, beyond Phelps's large extended family. Over the years the family has turned the block around the church grounds into a sort of mini-compound, purchasing adjacent houses and knocking down fences to make a huge shared backyard with a small running track and pool.
Upstairs from the church sanctuary, Phelps holds court in a high-ceilinged, pine-paneled office where he stands at a tall drafting table to compose his sermons for church services and radio addresses, as well as the vituperative anti-gay faxes that are sent out each day. Phelps says this all started when he decided to clean up Gage Park, a local gay cruising spot, after one of his grandsons was propositioned there during a family bike ride. He began reading up on the subject and says he realized then that the entire culture had become "infested with homosexuals."
"It was breathtaking how far down that road this country's gone," he says. "And the more I found out the more resolute I got and began to look upon myself gradually as the last, best hope of this miserable, godforsaken country." Here, he starts laughing. He finds in all of this a measure of pure hilarity. "It's fun," he says, those skewed eyes aglitter. "I have such a good life. Can't imagine doing anything else. I go to sleep from pure joy most nights."
The phone rings. It is Gerald Beavers, the Topeka police chief, returning Phelps's call.
What follows can only be described as a chewing-out. Fred Phelps chewing out the police chief, that is.
Upset because he feels there was not enough protection at one of his protests, Phelps wants to make damn sure this does not happen again. "These 16- or 17-year-old types were swirlin' in a sea around us and there weren't no police there," Phelps says into the phone, pacing around, his little jogging shorts flapping. "That puts hairs up on the back of my neck, because they'll hit a sign or trip somebody, and then, a conflagration! Now, please don't think I'm fussin' at you, chief."
He then scolds Beavers because he's heard that the chief told someone that Phelps's theology is perverted. "That's a goddamn lie, chief! It's the doctrine of John Calvin and every other church leader and I can prove it to you. Even if it was perverted, that's not for you to say, chief. That's none of your business, my friend."
Having said his piece, Phelps hangs up.
"You have to educate these people," he mutters. Fighting Fire With Ire
Many of the ministers whose churches have been targeted by Phelps believe that he and his family have intimidated some local officials into docility. Because Phelps is such an ugly enemy, because of his propensity to sue, and because there is no significant political mileage in being perceived as pro-gay, the churchmen say officials have sometimes been guilty of looking the other way in all but the most egregious cases of harassment.
"That's ridiculous," responds Beavers. "Fred is always mad at me, so I figure I must be doing something right."
(It is true that Fred is angry with nearly everyone. He calls Mayor Felker "the Antichrist.")
Beavers says his officers struggle to maintain the delicate line between Phelps's right to free speech and Topekans' right to worship and carry on their lives without harassment. But ministers like Bob Layne, the rector at St. David's Episcopal Church, say their congregations have been repeatedly harassed and that the Topeka police, acting on orders of the conservative mayor, have done nothing.
At first, Layne says, "we tried to win them over with some degree of Christian love, ask them in for coffee, and they would swear we had AIDS." So the church decided to fight fire with their own brimstone. For 18 months -- until last August, when the church obtained a temporary restraining order limiting the Phelpses' picketing activities on its property -- members of the congregation would stand outside, holding their own signs advocating love and tolerance, next to the Phelpses' each day before services.
"I would come in shaking sometimes," says Layne. "To be told you drink anal blood at the altar of the sphincter'? They had little kids shouting outside in the rain and the cold, Rectum Bob, smells like his name.' "
"This is just preaching," Phelps responds. "Picketing is just preaching, what I've been doing for 40-some years. We picket because it is the only avenue left to us, and it is so powerful."
"The people they go after are the children and the little gray-haired old ladies, not gays," responds W. Gerald Weeks, the pastor of First Lutheran Church. Phelps has targeted Weeks's church, Weeks says, because he mistakenly believes First Lutheran permits same-sex marriages and gay ministers.
Phelps denies that his groups' attacks get violent or even profane. But his denial is belied by a videotape made by Phelps's own people. It is expected to be used as evidence in an upcoming trial.
Scene: the lawn of First Lutheran Church on a sunny Sunday morning, Labor Day weekend 1993. The mellifluous voices of the Phelps children and grandchildren can be heard in the background, an angelic choir, as the camera centers on the determined face of Rev. Weeks, already suited up for the day's worship service in his ministerial garb. He is holding a small hammer in his hand, driving a sign into the grass that reads "God's Love Speaks Loudest."
A finger points in his face and words are exchanged. Weeks, visibly angered, makes a disgusted downward swipe with the small tool, directed at no one in particular.The hammer head falls off and onto the ground, rolling about. The picketers dissolve in shrieks of protest, accusing Weeks of hitting them.
"You're a violent, evil man!" screams lawyer Margie J. Phelps, one of Fred's daughters. Four people wrestle Weeks to the ground, sitting on him, pinning an arm behind his back and holding his face in the dirt, claiming they are making a "citizen's arrest." After horrified parishioners implore the picketers to release Weeks, he sits up, looking woozy, his gray hair mussed and his eyes unfocused. In the background, Margie Phelps's voice can be heard: "We will have our theology and we won't be attacked because of it. You keep that wild man under control."
Eventually, two of Phelps's sons -- Jonathan, a 300-pounder, and Timothy -- along with two other Westboro Baptist Church members, were charged with battery and unlawful restraint. Margie Phelps was charged with filing a false police report. The trial is scheduled for later this year.
Fred Phelps calls the Rev. Weeks a "bloody murdering thug." A Silent Majority?
The state of Kansas has a long history of tolerance for bug-eyed radicals. The abolitionist John Brown, for example, is celebrated in a huge mural on the statehouse wall, his face stern, long hair waving behind him like a flag. Carry Nation began her saloon-slamming temperance crusade here. The staying power of Fred Phelps's anti-gay crusade, however, has confounded some observers.
"A lot of people used to say if we just ignore them they'll go away," Hamilton says. "The trouble is that they haven't. They've sort of developed this attitude they can do whatever they please to whomever they please."
Which raises the question: Do most of the residents of Topeka agree with Fred Phelps, or at least his message? Phelps would like to think so -- he and his children are constantly recounting stories of citizens who walk by the picket lines flashing thumbs up. The day Hamilton confiscated their fax machines, Phelps says, the church received three offers of donated fax time to get the daily messages out.
And the fact is, without buying or renting new machines, Phelps did get thousands of faxes out by day's end.
Only very recently, in September, has there been any effort to come to the aid of the beleaguered churches. A group of business leaders created Concerned Citizens for Topeka, a nonprofit volunteer organization whose declared mission is to fight prejudice. Two dozen defense attorneys have donated their time to defend witnesses who have testified against the Phelps family and have been subsequently sued.
Soon afterward, Phelps wrote a letter to union representatives for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which had been considering moving 600 clerical jobs to Topeka. Phelps warned them away from the town, which he called "the homosexual Mecca of the world."
With that threat to the economy, the ranks of Concerned Citizens for Topeka swelled from 60 to 500 in a matter of weeks.
"As long as it's a gay issue, it doesn't matter," says Miller, the gay activist, somewhat bitterly. "But he crossed the line." A Happy Little Kid'
The emergence of Fred Phelps has sent many people, including the local news media, scrambling into his past for clues to the roots of such virulent hatred. They have come up empty.
Phelps himself says he was a "busy, happy little kid" growing up in the sleepy Southern town of Meridian, Miss., in a house in the center of town. His father, Fred Wade Phelps, was a courtly man who was often away from home as a detective
For the Southern Railway. His mother died of cancer when he was 5.
Folks around Meridian remember the Phelps family as a good one, devout parishioners of the local Methodist church.
"He came from good people. Fred had a wonderful daddy and a good childhood," says a distant cousin, Myrtle Abel. "Whatever happened to him happened apart from all of us."
As a youth, Phelps bounced around various Bible colleges. After marrying and starting his family, he settled in Topeka in 1954 and helped found Westboro Baptist Church two years later. He decided to become a lawyer in 1961, and after a controversial career he was disbarred by the state in 1979 for allegedly abusive behavior including, among other things, harassing a court reporter. After this his children became a well-known sight in Topeka, selling candy door-to-door to support his church. At the church-residence, on the corner of Orleans and 12th streets, his son says, the level of rage rose and fell along with the father's sometimes wrathful, sometimes loving moods.
"We went to school and when school was out we sold candy until 7 o'clock," explains Mark Phelps, now 41 and a successful Orange County, Calif., businessman who owns a chain of print shops. Growing up in a household he likens to a "war zone" took its toll: "We were just peculiar," he says. "We were a little bit like the Munsters."
Now estranged from the family, both Mark and his brother Nathan, 36, have been vocal in the news media about the brutal beatings they say they suffered at the hands of their father, which included unremitting clubbings with an oak pole "the size of a baseball bat," Mark says.
Fred Phelps says his sons have exaggerated the extent of the beatings, but admits his children were disciplined physically, and even says that he had a leather strap handmade at a local tannery for that purpose.
"If they say we disciplined them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, that's not a lie," Phelps says.
Since 1989, Phelps has run in the primaries for governor twice and for U.S. Senate in 1992. His estranged children believe that he began the picketing in 1991 as an attention-getting ploy after his first campaign for governor flopped.
"My dad is an egomaniac," says Dotti Bird, 30, a local attorney who changed her name four years ago to avoid being linked with family. (She chose that name because it means "free as a bird.")
"He is a spoiled child," says Bird, "and he will stop at nothing to get attention." Judgment -- and Sentencing
This past summer, Joan Hamilton won her first two convictions against the Phelps family. In a series of trials that had to be moved to nearby Lyon County in a change of venue, Phelps was convicted of two counts of disorderly conduct, and Benjamin Phelps, at 20 the oldest grandson, was convicted of battery after spitting on a restaurateur. Fred Phelps's sentencing is scheduled for Tuesday. Hamilton says she will ask for jail time, or in lieu of that, that Phelps be required to work with AIDS patients during the community service portions of his sentence.
In the meantime, the Phelps children continue to fight their father's battles in court, and their constant challenges of laws backed by Hamilton and others have turned Topeka into a First Amendment laboratory and a constitutional scholar's dream. The city and the state have passed several laws designed to curtail Phelps, including a modification of its criminal defamation laws and laws against fax harassment and picketing within a certain distance of a funeral service or a church door.
Phelps says these laws violate his First Amendment freedoms of religion and speech, and Ted Frederickson, a Topeka resident and a media ethics professor at the University of Kansas, agrees. He says the Phelps-inspired laws are "part of the constant eating-away at free speech."
"They have an army of lawyers and I expect them to challenge all the laws, and I expect they will win," Frederickson says. "These laws are clearly aimed at abridging his speech, even though it is vile." Sermons and Maggots
Each Sunday, sandwiched in between all the pickets of all the churches, Fred Phelps has a service of his own in the small sanctuary at the family compound. Waiting for the service -- really just two hymns and two hours of Phelps's preaching -- the family gathers, the 9 children, their wives and husbands and the 40 grandchildren. Babies are sacred here, passed from hand to hand like little golden prizes, exclaimed over, kissed and coddled by church members who are still wearing the "God Hates Fags" T-shirts from the pickets.
The only churchgoers in attendance this day who are not related to Fred Phelps are Topeka bug exterminator Charles Chapman, his wife and their three children. Chapman had seen Phelps on the "Ricki Lake" show and had come to hear, he says, some "straight talk. Some Bible talk. Everybody wants to apologize for what God said nowadays."
Phelps rambles through his two-hour sermon, punctuated by Bible quotations, invocations of the importance of man loving woman, denunciations of a Congress that includes "fags" like Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and the "baby-killing" Supreme Court, references to anal sex, pederasty and, for some reason, dogs eating their own vomit.
In the very last seat of the very last pew in the back of the room sits Phelps's gray-haired wraith of a wife, Margie, a small, bent woman of 70 with a face like a walnut. Her family is spread out before her, big as a high school graduating class. "Fred always wanted lots of children," she says. "He said that to me before we married. He made me promise we'd have 10 and we ended up having 13. He loves the fact they are following the Lord. He doesn't control them. Some days he hardly sees them, but he always knows where they are."
After the services, in a warm kitchen that smells of Cheetos and peanut butter, Rev. Phelps is perched on a stool halfway listening to his daughters' conversation and halfway reading the Sunday paper, cutting out articles that pique his interest. Phelps has changed out of his silvery-gray preacher suit into his athletic suit and running shorts, despite the cold weather.
There is a lonely, solitary kind of look to him just now, which brings to mind a story he tells about a recent trip back to his home town of Meridian he took this summer. At Meridian, he made no attempt to contact any old friends or relatives still living in the area. He and his family simply staged a protest in the town square, in the shadow of the big memorial statue of a World War I soldier. Pretty soon, he said, "some wild-eyed militant fags assembled. . . . It's the same old thing. They've got this animal look to 'em. They're like maggots."
"Did you know if you put a dead body in a sealed container it will still get maggots?" he goes on, not looking up from his newspaper, still rattling its pages. "Dirty maggots, crawling all over it. It's because the eggs live inside us. Worms, worms that never die." He still doesn't look up and flips the pages of his newspaper without really reading it. At this moment he seems transfixed, transfixed utterly by all our little evils.