Phelps family finds OSU on the way to Supreme Court

UWeekly - Phelps Phamily

Originally published in UWeekly (now 1870 Magazine) on Oct. 6, 2010.

When the van first pulled up to the UWeekly offices to pick up a reporter for a ride-along to their demonstration Monday, the first thing noticeable about Shirley Phelps-Roper of Kansas’ Westboro Baptist Church was her headband. It had pink ribbons and read “Thank God for cancer.” Of course, her attire was accented by a “God Hates Fags” T-shirt and the American flags draped from her belt were noticeable. But other than that, Shirley, and the members of the Phelps family seemed almost as normal as any other family heading cross-country on vacation.

The group had their coffees In hand. They debated about directions. Their travel bags were loosely packed into the van – a remarkably ordinary scenario for people known for their homophobic shock tactics. After all, they are often referred to as “the most hated family in America.”

Shirley, her husband, a sister, assorted children and nieces and nephews were on the “GodSmack Tour,” traveling on 1-70 from Kansas to the Supreme Court, where they are due to appear on Wednesday In what they say is a defense of their First Amendment rights. They will be challenging a Fourth District Court of Appeals decision to uphold a Maryland law, which penalized the group for protesting at military funerals. They stopped at OSU, at the corner of 11th and High, to let their viewpoints about America and homosexuals be heard.

The group tirelessly preaches their message that the destruction of America is imminent thanks to the way the nation apparently spits in the face of God. So imminent is the destruction, in fact, that Shirley is incapable of saying the word ‘America’ without adding an adjective like ‘doomed’ in front of it.

“Honey, I’m talking imminent destruction – not hyperbolically; the land is going to vomit out [its] inhabitants,” she explained. She said a prime example of vomiting land were the trapped miners in Chile, who were “walking, talking, breathing rebels against God one minute and then. In the twinkling of an eye, they’re turned Into human projectiles bouncing off of the walls of that mine.”

Such arguably offensive examples are commonplace WBC rhetoric: they consider all catastrophes to be evidence of God’s wrath for homosexual behavior (i.e. the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and 9/11) and they are a ubiquitous sight at military funerals, gay pride events, performances of  “The Laramie Project,” etc. making sure the populace knows why God hates so many people. At the recent OSU demonstration, the members were holding no less than four to six bold signs apiece while festooned In American and Israeli flags that they could conveniently step on as a sign of disrespect. Phelps-Roper’s 10-year old son was outfitted in a”” sweatshirt and the lot of them made noise singing homophobic parodies of well-known pop songs on the comer of 11th and High Street.

“Be not weary in well-doing.” says WBC member Steve Drain on the group’s level of dedication. While he admits their activities take up all of their waking time and thought, they dutifully go about their mission without question. When packed into their van, the sense of duty the family/church members feels is palpable and their $200,000 a year travel budget attests to it.

Their abhorrence of all things homosexual (and Imagined to be) has been roundly condemned by virtually all other religious denominations in the country. Their beliefs are considered to be on par with those of hate groups like the KKK, though according to the WSC website “0 nanoseconds [is the amount] of sleep that WBC members lose over your opinions and feeeeellllliiiiiings.”

Again, to them, criticism is irrelevant – prophets and martyrs are usually disliked in their time and prophets are exactly how the WSC fancy themselves. Furthermore, not only do the Westboro Baptist Church consider themselves the only Christians truly living in accordance with Biblical laws, but their struggles may have also been predicted in the Book of Revelations. Phelps-Roper explains that “when the prophets go, their destruction comes,” referring to themselves as prophets whose possible defeat in the Supreme Court precludes the end of the world. They may have an important impact on the First Amendment, depending on the outcome of their case, but the reality of the imminent end of the world waits to be seen.

Despite the one-sidedness of their beliefs, Phelps-Roper seems well-spoken, articulate and intelligent, even though a lot of what she says is oft-explained sound bytes. She and 10 of her 13 siblings are lawyers, a job extremely beneficial to their First Amendment arguments. She has a tremendous amount of respect for it – “It’s the crown jewel of all of the beautiful garments He clothed this nation with” – but Steve Drain amends her statement by saying that it’s respected only as a part of the country as it exists now, but it won’t apply when a Christian dictatorship is implemented and upholds things like the death penalty for sodomy.

When compounded with the liberal usage of statements like these, the whole WBC picket spectacle has a very spectacle feel to it. The WBC’s philosophy and its demonstrations are so outrageous that some automatically refuse to take it seriously. The counter-demonstrators on the OSU campus seemed less offended by their speech and more out to show that love and mutual regard are much more beneficial than hatred. Some counter-demonstrators seemed to be out for a good time, holding signs like “God Hates Michigan” and “Extremists are Sexy.” There was a voter-registration drive and people were selling cookies for a GLBTQ group. A contingent of heavy-metallers appeared with their take on the religious issue (replete with boombox and death metal) and someone in a pirate costume held up a placard proclaiming that “God Hates Pirates.”

Their stop in Columbus complete, the Phelps family collected their signs and CD player and hustled back to the unmarked van. The organization runs a tight ship and it has to when the tour sometimes demands three or more pickets per day. One can imagine the adrenalin still surging as they depart, but after a while It no doubt subsides Into the normal tr1als of a long drive. Or, at least, until they roll into the next town. They seem conscious of the eccentric role they play, but when fully backed by the protection of the God in which they believe, they know they are the ones who will be having the last laugh.

“Imminent – that’s the word of the day.”

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