Jewish Journal

Life in the city that Westboro Baptist calls home

by Brad A. Greenberg

October 15, 2010 | 9:35 am


After its Supreme Court appearance last week, Westboro Baptist Church got the dispatches treatment from The New York Times and newish Kansas City bureau chief A.G. Sulzberger. Yes, that Sulzberger.

It’s an excellent article on Topeka’s tense relationship with its most-reviled community members. Here’s a sampling:

Fred W. Phelps, whose operation is at the center of the case before the highest court now, arrived here a half-century ago to work as a preacher for a local Baptist church. Now a self-described prophet of God’s wrath, Mr. Phelps has solicited outrage with his venomous protesting at military funerals all over the country — including the burial of a young Marine in Maryland that prompted the case before the Supreme Court — as well as burning the Koran and enlisting his grandchildren to stomp on the American flag.

Mr. Phelps is regarded here as the ultimate example of an irritating local gadfly. But he and his sprawling family, which make up nearly all of Westboro Baptist Church, have been at the heart of decades of local debate about the proper limits of the First Amendment when speech is meant to be as purposefully inflammatory as it is here.

Even now, as they have crisscrossed the country seeking to provoke media attention, the Phelpses remain a fixture at public parks, government buildings, other churches and graveyards here carrying homemade signs intended to communicate — with their signature subtlety — the view that the acceptance of homosexuality has doomed America.

“They believe free speech tops everything,” said Mayor William W. Bunten, sitting at his desk in City Hall last week. “We do with some exceptions, and one of them would be taking signs and standing outside a funeral home and associating someone’s death with God’s hate for homosexuality. I believe it should be banned. I see it as bullying.”

Sulzberger goes on to quote the governor saying he thinks Phelps and his flock’s speech should be, at least at times, muzzled. And I guess there have been some efforts to get them to shut up or get out of town—obviously, to no avail.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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