The true believers from Westboro Baptist Church carried their usual battery of offensive signs on March 10, 2006, as they staged their fateful protest near the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder. One contained a stick-figure cartoon of two men having sex. One proclaimed "Thank God For Dead Soldiers" and another "God Hates You." During the demonstration these signs faced what the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., and his family call the pro-America "pep rally" that greets them wherever they go -- throngs of counter protesters, journalists, military veterans and police.
"We're not picketing the funeral," stressed attorney Margie Phelps, in a standing-room-only showdown with student journalists at the recent College Media Convention in New York City. "We're picketing the pep rally."
That may sound like a trivial detail, but it was central to the legal and, at times, theological arguments that unfolded when the Snyder family's lawsuit reached the U.S. Supreme Court. This led to a sweeping 8-1 ruling on March 2 in favor of Phelps, his family and their tiny independent congregation in Topeka, Kan.
When arguing her case -- both to the high court and the young journalists -- daughter Margie Phelps stressed that a key point in the Westboro message is that the "you" in the slogan "God Hates You" was not a reference to Matthew Snyder, alone. The central idea of their protests is that God hates all sinners who have not repented and embraced their church's hellfire-and-brimstone view of America's moral decay.
When Phelps discussing those facing God's wrath, she included just about every imaginable religious and political group. While Westboro is best known for its conviction that America is speeding toward judgment day because of its acceptance of gay rights, her conference remarks also included nasty shots at Jews, Catholics, Southern Baptists and Pentagon officials, among others.
Most of the students cheered her critics, mocked her stabs at humor and jeered her attempts to justify her beliefs. Yet the crowd remained rather quiet when, in a taped dialogue with First Amendment Center leader Gene Policinski, she repeatedly noted America's long heritage of protecting the free speech rights of dissenters.
"The Christian in me could barely sit still and listen to Phelps twist the Bible. ... Yet almost paradoxically, the American journalist in me felt a little bubble of pride," said Rebecca Young of the University of Dayton, in an essay posted online afterwards. "As angry and upset as I was at the ideas espoused, I was proud of a profession and a country that acknowledges their freedoms don't just exist when it's convenient."
To understand Westboro and its beliefs, stressed Margie Phelps, it helps to know that the church's tactics have evolved during the past two decades and the 45,000 protests it claims to have staged at a variety of public events, including about 800 funerals.
For a decade, the central message was that America needed to repent and turn away from sin. But as the death toll kept rising in Iraq, she said Westboro's leaders concluded that, "It's too late now. ... This nation is doomed." Above all, they were infuriated when many of the funerals for the fallen turned into patriotic rallies.
"We watched as the politicians, the media, the military, the citizenry and the veterans used the occasion of these soldiers' deaths to publish a viewpoint," said Phelps, describing the First Amendment arguments she used before the Supreme Court. "And we said, 'We don't agree with your viewpoint. God is not blessing America. It is a curse that that young soldier, the fruit of your nation, is lying in there in that coffin.' ...
"That is not a blessing of God. ... The soldiers are dying for your sins."
The bottom line, concluded Margie Phelps, is that Westboro Baptist simply "joined that public debate" on public sidewalks, while following all existing laws that govern public protests. Now, national outrage about the court decision has strengthened the convictions of the Phelps family.
"These are desperate times, calling for desperate measures and we are going to get these words into your ears," she said. By focusing on military funerals, the leaders of Westboro Baptist "know that we are hitting three of your biggest idols -- the flag, the uniform and the dead bodies. ...
"We are going to finish this work. The Lord God Jehovah has our back."