I’m not sure if it’s GetReligion policy or anything, but we try our best to avoid giving hatemongering Westboro Baptist Church any more publicity than that which its members so desperately crave and receive. But this month’s $10.9 million judgment against the group makes it a bit hard to ignore. The Baltimore Sun‘s Matthew Dolan went to Topeka, Kan., to see how Westboro has affected its hometown:
In the quiet shadow of the state Capitol, Bill Duckworth stands just inside the Tool Shed Tap bar and lets out a long sigh.
He’s a veteran and openly gay member of a community long unhappy about pickets by a virulently anti-homosexual religious group based here. But on this Saturday night, Duckworth says he’s still wary about the biggest news in town: the $10.9 million judgment against the group, Westboro Baptist Church, in a Baltimore courtroom.
“I felt like it might have been offensive, but that’s their right,” the 55-year-old printing press worker says of the military funeral protest in Maryland that prompted a deceased Marine’s father to sue Westboro. “That’s what our military is fighting for. It’s why our country was founded.”
Just how to deal with Westboro — whose members believe God’s wrath is killing soldiers because of America’s tolerance of gays — remains an open question for this exhausted prairie city. For more than 15 years, civic leaders have tried to rein in Westboro’s inflammatory picketing without violating constitutional rights.
I was happy to see someone raise Constitutional questions. I read a thorough critique of the jury decision at The Volokh Conspiracy but didn’t see anything in the mainstream media. This article, however, wasn’t about that. It was about how the town deals with its least favorite citizens — and the citizens themselves. It had some interesting tidbits. Fred Phelps Sr. was disbarred in 1979. Eleven of his 13 children are lawyers. Most of his congregants are related to him. At least four of Phelps’ children and several grandchildren “have left his church or been cast out as unworthy.”
All in all, Dolan paints a picture of a media-hungry group of extremists:
To its critics, Westboro is more a savvy cult of personality than organized religion. They say its acolytes carry signs with offending words and stick figures engaged in sexual acts because they want to attract the media spotlight. . . .
Inside the wood-paneled sanctuary with roughly 20 small pews with burnt-orange cushions, Phelps hosts a weekly Sunday service. Men mostly dress without ties, but women cover their heads. A baby grand piano sits on one side of the front of the room, and maps of the biblical Holy Land fill the other side.
A hymn begins and ends the two-hour, noontime service. In between is Phelps’ fiery preaching. . . .
Though church members describe their ministry as both fundamentalist and evangelical, they expect almost no one to agree with their message or join their church. Almost all members are part of the Phelps family.
As for what Dolan mentioned, I think he navigated things well. He emphasized Phelps’ domination of Westboro Baptist Church rather than trying to make it seem like Westboro was a mainstream Baptist group. However, he neglected to mention — even in a cursory manner — any religious content that would help the reader place the group in context of its place among Baptists or American religious adherents in general. The article tried to explain how Topekans have responded to Westboro. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to talk to some local Baptists about how they like sharing a name with this group?