Members of the Topeka-based church brought signs condemning LGBT rights in harsh, vulgar terms.
Perched on the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol, Westboro Baptist Church member Fred Phelps held a sign that read, “You’re going to hell.”
His sign was directed at Minnesota residents who were celebrating the significance of Thursday, Aug. 1, the day same-sex marriage became legal in the state following a legislative vote in May.
“No, I don’t know [the signs] are offensive,” Phelps told Mint Press News. “What’s offensive is this group of human filth gathered in front of your very eyes.”
That so-called “filth” Phelps was describing were residents from Minnesota who gathered at the foot of the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. not only to celebrate the first day gay marriage was legal in the state, but also to show Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) members that they were not welcome.
Meredith McDowell was among the crowd of celebrators. Having come out as at age 14, she’s long held a passion for issues related to equality, particularly in support of the LGBT community.
“I have become really passionate about pro-gay rights and making sure that gay marriage is officially legal, because I have so many friends who are gay, lesbian, bisexual. And I’m more than happy that some of them can get married now,” she told Mint Press News. “The possibility that I might actually be able to marry whomever I want is really huge to me,”
McDowell stood in a group of roughly 50 LGBT-rights advocates holding signs that mocked those of Westboro Baptist Church members and singing songs of solidarity. At one point, McDowell’s burst into patriotic song with “America the Beautiful.”
The crowd of those holding signs of tolerance and love did not interfere with the WBC members, who had traveled from their home in Topeka, Kan. on Wednesday night to fly to Minnesota — just in time to demonstrate in front of state offices issuing the first same-sex marriage licenses in the state’s history.
Before traveling to Minnesota’s capital, WBC members started the morning off in Rochester, Minn., as the doors to the state license office opened. After that, they drove to St. Paul to do the same. As same-sex couples left the building with their marriage certificates, they were greeted by WBC signs that read “God h8s fags,” and “Fags are beasts.”
Yet those who were celebrating the historic day were also greeted by a cheering crowd of supporters — a group that far outnumbered those who were there to show their disapproval.
“We were here largely to make sure that the people who were coming here to get their licenses had a loving face in front of them,” Jay Linnell told Mint Press News. “We know some of the things said by the other side can be very dehumanizing … and I’ve seen some of the tapes, and I just didn’t want that to be the only message people were getting, either on their wedding day, or the day that they’re planning for that.”
Westboro is no stranger to controversy. Having become nationally recognized for picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers, their spectrum of critics ranges from conservative to liberal.
Fox conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity was among those in the political world who blasted WBC members for protesting outside of dead soldiers’ funerals.
“You feel good about this? You feel good about going to the funerals of men who put their lives on the line for this country … that gave you the right to do this, and to inject pain into their families lives?” Hannity asked Shirley Phelps, considered the spokesperson for the church.
“Of course,” Phelps replied.
Her response is one church members are united behind, seeing their actions — using signs to bring attention to their claim that homosexuality will destroy the nation — as the work of God.
“Well, the issue is front and center, and we’re going to stick to it,” Phelps told Mint Press News over the sound of fellow WBC members singing a version of “I Will Survive” altered to repeatedly refer to LGBT individuals as “whores.” “The issue is, if you believe in the Bible, it’s not even a close question. And the religious authorities are unanimous that this is the sin that brought on the flood of Noah. And of course this is the sin that destroyed Sodom … and this is the sin that is going to destroy this nation.”
WBC has sparked national attention, and even provoked legislatures around the country to implement riot laws intended to limit the vicinity around which anyone is allowed to gather outside the site of a funeral.
In 2012, President Barack Obama signed into law the Honoring America’s Veterans Act, which does not allow protesters to be within 300 feet from military funerals and restricts them from gathering two hours before and after a funeral.
“We have a moral sacred duty to our men and women in uniform,” Obama said before signing the bill into law. “The graves of our veterans are hallowed grounds.”
The new law didn’t stop WBC members from targeting soldiers’ funerals, however. The most recent press release issued by the group details the names and hometowns of fallen soldiers.
“Thank God for 14 more dead troops. We are praying for 14,000 more. We will picket their funerals in their hometowns in respectful and lawful proximity thereto. Here is a list of the damned,” the press release states, going on to name the fallen.
Internal dynamics of the WBC family
While Westboro Baptist Church members are infamous nation-wide, the body of believers isn’t all that large. Estimates put the church at around 100 people, roughly 80 of whom belong to the same Phelps family.
The church was founded by Fred Phelps, Sr., who at age 17 dropped out of the military and made a decision to preach out against what he claimed was the immorality of homosexuality. The church’s first official service was in 1955. Since then, Phelps has passed on his views to many born into the family.
A few who grew up in the WBC family have publicly cut ties with the church and instead have advocated against WBC’s message while sharing their stories with the world.
Nathan Phelps is one of those who left WBC behind. Now a prominent atheist, Nathan Phelps has become a staunch critic of his former church. He’s now also an advocate of gay rights.
Lauren Drain, a 27-year-old who grew up in the church, is another voice of opposition to the church. This year, she released her memoir, “Banished: Surviving my years in the Westboro Baptist Church.”
Since leaving, Drain has been cut off from her family — her siblings remain among those who protest the funerals of fallen soldiers with signs that read, “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
Drain once did just that. In an interview with Extra, Drain responded to questions of what it was like to watch friends and family members of fallen soldiers grieve while holding signs that elicited outrage among those honoring veterans.
“I wasn’t thinking about them at all,” she told Extra. “I wasn’t thinking about how I was affecting them at all. I was just thinking that I was doing a good Christian thing, that I was delivering a message.”