God hates most sinners, saith Phelps

The words of the fifth Psalm are not for the faint of heart. "Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness. ... The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity," warned the psalmist.

Obviously, says the Rev. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, this passage teaches that God hates the evil liberals who run the Southern Baptist Convention, along with legions of other Americans.

Phelps also believes that God hates the pope and plenty of other religious leaders who are called "conservatives," "traditionalists" and even "fundamentalists" in public debates about faith, morality and culture.

Southern Baptists are too liberal? Yes, that's why activists from the independent Westboro Baptist congregation in Topeka, Kan., like to picket major SBC meetings carrying those now familiar signs with slogans such as, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God Hates America," "Thank God for AIDS" and, of course, "God Hates Fags."

With Westboro Baptist, up is down and down is up.

It may take months for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the First Amendment puzzle that is the clash between Phelps and Albert Snyder, the grieving father of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. A Westboro Baptist team held a protest near the Catholic funeral of Snyder's son and church leaders also posted a website screed claiming that the divorced father raised his son to "serve the devil." A Maryland court gave Snyder $5 million, but the award was overturned.

Behind this pain and grief is a thicket of legal and journalistic thorns.

This is a case in which the mainstream press has spilled oceans of ink attacking Phelps' flock. Nevertheless, the core facts provoked the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 21 news organizations to file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the church's right to hold legal protests and for journalists to cover them. News executives are especially worried because the protesters complied with all restrictions imposed by civic officials, including moving their demonstration away from the church. Snyder saw their hateful slogans in news reports and on the Internet.

This is case in which scholars have struggled to find a way to defend the free speech and religious liberty rights of Westboro believers, as well as the religious liberty and privacy rights of grieving family members.

In a reluctant defense of Phelps, a New York Times editorial quoted Justice Felix Frankfurter: "It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have often been forged in controversies involving not very nice people." I once heard a church-state scholar put it this way: "Your religious liberties have been purchased for you by believers with whom you wouldn't necessarily want to have dinner."

What about the American Civil Liberties Union? After all, in the 1970s this organization backed the right of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, Ill., a small community that was home to a large number of Holocaust survivors.

In a court brief backing Westboro Baptist, "we pointed out that the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech guarantees that no one can be found liable for merely expressing an opinion about a matter of public concern, regardless of how hurtful those opinions might be," noted Chris Hampton, a leader in ACLU efforts to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender causes.

The goal, she added, is to protect First Amendment principles that have been "essential to the advancement of civil rights, including the civil rights of LGBT people. Allowing Fred Phelps to speak his mind may be difficult, but chipping away at one of the fundamental principles on which our country was founded is far, far worse for all of us in the long run."

This is, of course, precisely the kind of liberal thinking that Phelps condemns out of hand, even when voiced by religious conservatives. According to his reading of Psalm 5 and many other scripture passages, Phelps believes that God hates what he calls "kissy-pooh" sermons that refuse to proclaim that God never, ever forgives homosexuals and many other sinners.

The Westboro website once warned preachers who claim that God will forgive those who repent, no matter what: "You are going to Hell! Period! End of discussion! God's decree sending you to Hell is irreversible! Hypocrites!"

"That's Bible preaching," Phelps told Baptist Press, in a 2003 interview about his beliefs. "You tell [people] that God loves everybody? You're lying on God."