Watching that circle go round and round

phelps2Fred Phelps is getting help from the American Civil Liberties Union. Phelps, of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, is suing in federal court, challenging a Missouri law that prohibits protesting at military funerals.

I’ve held in the past that Phelps’ attempts to get into the news should be avoided by journalists. But when laws are enacted to prohibit the stunts pulled by his group, you can’t help but write about him. And journalists should. But now the ACLU is on his side, and that makes this an even bigger, and profoundly ironic, story.

For some background, this is the same ACLU that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But let’s not forget the “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way,” Falwell said on The 700 Club.

So now we’ve come full circle:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Kansas church group that protests at military funerals nationwide filed suit in federal court, saying a Missouri law banning such picketing infringes on religious freedom and free speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit Friday in the U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, Mo., on behalf of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, which has outraged mourning communities by picketing service members’ funerals with signs condemning homosexuality.

The church and the Rev. Fred Phelps say God is allowing troops, coal miners and others to be killed because the United States tolerates gay men and lesbians.

God and gaysIt’s tough to deny the ACLU a level of credibility based on its attempts to act on principle. It’s certainly making for some interesting copy. Falwell and Robertson certainly made news for their comments after the terrorist attacks. Thankfully Phelps does not have that type of bully pulpit and following, but he is in the news again for legitimate reasons. Some loaded comments slipped into the AP story, and I’ll use this as an opportunity to highlight why journalists must be careful about how they cover this guy:

“I told the nation, as each state went after these laws, that if the day came that they got in our way, that we would sue them,” said Phelps’s daughter Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, a spokeswoman for the church in Topeka, Kan. “At this hour, the wrath of God is pouring out on this country.”

A reporter with a decent level of knowledge of religion will understand that Phelps-Roper’s comments are religiously loaded, and follow-up questions should abound when someone makes that type of statement. A comment included in a story as if it were just a normal quote — with no background or context — fails to explain the shaky theological foundation on which this group stands.

Any reporter who believes Phelps represents anything close to a fraction of the diverse religious landscape in America needs to do more research. So fine, quote Phelps and his daughter, but do it in a way that provides proper context and understanding.

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  • Johna Moody

    It is not surprising that ACLU is representing Fred Phelps. His group is certainly not main stream Christianity. From my personal opinion it is not any sort of Christianity. The Word gives Christians no right in world judgment.

    I am new to this site I shall look around thanks.

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  • Stephen A.

    You’re right. This guy doesn’t even come close to representing even 1/100th of 1% of America’s religious landscape.

    That won’t stop snarky comments from the Left (see very first comment posted here) about the “irony” of him being represented by the ACLU, implying that the Phelps’ extremism is somehow shared by most religious conservatives.

    The ACLU really is being remarkably consistent here in their full-throated support of any group or individual that is socially destructive.

    (I’m surprised they’re not defending Hezbollah. Maybe when they start bombing HERE.)

    However, I’m sure the ACLU will soon get back in the saddle again and continue their Jihad against those who wish to speak in public about all OTHER religions soon enough. You know, the non-extremist type that 99% of the rest of us practice?

  • Kevin Stilley

    Religious Left Online said, “Imagine the ACLU-haters in the religious right dealing with the spectacle of the ACLU representing Fred Phelps.”

    I think it make perfect sense that the ACLU would represent Westoboro, and have written about it on my blog.

    Personally, I think God hates Westboro Church.

  • Tom Breen

    I second the motion for more background on Phelps’ views, as they are extremely atypical of Christianity. Not just the “God hates (fill in blank)” stuff, but their belief that Phelps is a prophet and they are writing a “new Bible.” In their internal writings, they don’t even call themselves Christian, preferring the term “Tachmonite.”

  • Avram

    How is it ironic for the American Civil Liberties Unions to help defend somebody’s civil liberties. It’s what the organization exists for. That’s like saying it’s ironic when Amnesty International tries to help prisoners, or when UNICEF tries to help children.

    The ACLU has a long history of helping religious people — yes, even mainstream Christians — with their civil liberties.

  • carl

    A little side note. Has anybody seen this site?

    Made me laugh.

  • Alison

    Made me cry.

  • Frank D.

    The Associated Press a few weeks ago moved a reasonably insightful piece about the Rev. Mr. Phelps and his family, its church and its theological outlook. As I recall the article, Phelps was widely respected as a lawyer in civil rights circles until he took off down this theological byway.

    Published in our small-town rural market, that article generated thoughtful letters from conservative clergy pointing out that neither Phelps nor his theology and strategy reflects the smallest fraction of a percentage of any Christian viewpoint.

    As for the ALCU, more power to it. As a fringe and vilified voice deplored by nearly everyone, Phelps and Co. still have the right to speak their pieces — and I say that as a fag.

    If you’ve been to the funeral of an Iraq War fatality, or have followed the coverage, you’ll also know that the Phelps family has generated single-handedly as a response one of the more interesting grass-roots groups of the day: the Patriot Guard.

  • Tony

    I couldn’t agree with Frank D. more.

    Interesting to me is that Phelps’ theology is so similar to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (i.e., the U.S. tolerance for gays, abortion, and liberal stuff is causing tragedies like Katrina and 9/11). Why are all these right-wing chrisians so afraid to stand up for Phelps’ religious views that are so close to the views of their popular leaders?

  • Tom Breen


    I don’t think Phelps’ theology is similar at all to Falwell and Robertson, who are fairly mainstream when it comes to their thinking. Phelps himself undoubtedly despises people like Falwell and Robertson, as well as virtually all Christians: Phelps’ favorite targets for demonstrations, aside from the funerals of soldiers, are churches.

    This is why I think there needs to be more press coverage of what Phelps actually believes: by the standard of virtually every Christian group in the country, Phelps is a heretic. But he’s generally seen as just a more vulgar version of an opponent of gay marriage.

  • Bene Diction

    There are indepth stories if people want to read them. CJOnline, Baptist Watch, Time, Washington Post, World, even Mark Tooley in FrontPage.

    One of the Phelps clan came over to Spero News to comment under a commentary about NPR calling Westboro Baptist Church conservative.

    When I linked to it on BDBO Ms. Phelps came over to comment. It was hilarious since it’s a Cdn blog.