Westboro: The story behind one of America’s top hate groups

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In this April 18, 2006 file photo, Shirley Phelps-Roper, left, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, Kan., holds a protest sign outside funeral services for Sgt. Daniel Sesker in Ogden, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, file)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Megan Phelps-Roper grew up surrounded by hate. Her grandfather was the founder of a church deemed as the “most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Phelps-Roper left the church seven years ago and is now bringing a message of love. Her TED talk has more than 13 million views and she has a new book out: “Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church.”

Phelps-Roper now lives in South Dakota and is talking with KELOLAND’s Angela Kennecke about her path from hate to love.

So, what is Westboro Baptist Church all about and how did it start?

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

The Westboro Baptist Church was founded in 1955 in Topeka, Kansas, by a man named Fred Phelps. However, it wasn’t until the early 1990s when America would begin to hear about this group.

“Gramps was an ‘Old School Baptist,’ he said, and was determined to represent the Scriptural position on homosexuality. He leapt immediately into attacks on the gay community as a whole, blaming them for the AIDS epidemic and proclaiming that they deserved the death penalty,” Phelps-Roper wrote in her newly-released memoir.

Phelps died in 2014, but Westboro is still in operation today.

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

They protest against LGBT+ people, Catholics, Christians, atheists, Muslims, Jews and U.S. Soldiers.

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The signs made them famous: “Thank God for 9/11” or “God hates America.”

The moment that launched the group in the public eye would be at the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard. The Wyoming student died after being injured in a brutal hate crime.

Westboro Baptist Church even tried to build a “monument” to the young gay man in Casper, Wyoming, saying “Matthew Shepard, Entered Hell October 12, 1998, in Defiance of God’s Warning: ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.’ Leviticus 18:22.”

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, FIle)

In 2005, the group began picketing soldiers’ funerals.

In South Dakota, the Westboro Baptist Church protested at Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Paul Pillen’s funeral in October of 2005.

They believed that God was punishing America for tolerating homosexuality.

KELOLAND News talked with Pillen’s mom, Bonnie, the next year.

“And some of their signs, ‘Thank God for dead soldiers’, that totally upset us,” she said.

Paul’s brother, Jubal, was in shock at the Rapid City protests.

“In fact, my wife and I drove right by and went down and turned around and came back because I couldn’t believe something like this could be allowed. And I was very angry about,” Jubal said.

Phelps-Roper talked about protesting funerals in her interview with Kennecke.

In 2006, the South Dakota legislature and then-Gov. Mike Rounds passed and signed a law to block the picketing of funeral services.

No person may engage in any act of picketing at any funeral service during the period from one hour before the scheduled commencement of the funeral services until one hour after the actual completion of the funeral services.

SDCL 22-13-17

“We believe at a time like this you should not be allowed to be picketing close by where a grieving family is at, preparing to bury their dead,” Rounds said in February 2006.

A violation was a Class 2 misdemeanor.

Fred Phelps’ granddaughter, Megan Phelps-Roper, plays volleyball during a gathering at the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. April 9, 2006. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

“The community response to our protests would mystify me for years, thanks to an ignorance borne both of youth and of the religious education I was receiving at home,” Phelps-Roper wrote. “I was five years old when the picketing began, and I didn’t understand why anyone would reject our message, let alone why our priests would draw counterprotesters.”

Despite laws passed by South Dakota and other states, the First Amendment was on their side. An 8-1 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States would cement the ability for this group to keep protesting.

The case was about protests at the funeral of Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq.

Phelps and six members of the church protested at the Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Maryland.

Fred Phelps Jr., of Topeka, Kansas., with the Westboro Baptist Church holds a sign in front of the Supreme Court in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“Speech is powerful,” Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. said in the announcement of the opinion. “It can stir people to action, move into tears of both joy and sorrow and as it did here, inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation, we have chosen a different course to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

According to the SPLC, the group has claimed to have picketed 40,000 times.

Phelps-Roper left the church in November 2012 and moved to Deadwood. The next year, she wrote an open letter about her decision to leave.

“We know that we dearly love our family,” Phelps-Roper wrote. “They now consider us betrayers, and we are cut off from their lives, but we know they are well-intentioned. We will never not love them.”

(AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

The group is still active. They recently celebrated the 2016 attack on a gay nightclub in Florida and this year media reports show the group is still protesting.