(Cue: Audible sigh)

Your GetReligionistas have a long, long, long, oh so long history of struggling with the question of whether mainstream reporters should continue covering the staged-for-media hatefests that seem to be the only reason for the existence of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan.

Now there is nothing that we can do but shudder, because there are basic journalism issues that cannot be avoided in the wake of some important news here inside the DC Beltway.

Let’s look at the Washington Post, for starters:

The Supreme Court will review whether anti-gay protests at funerals of American soldiers are protected by the First Amendment, taking up the appeal of a Maryland man who won and then had reversed a $10 million verdict against the small Kansas church that conducts the demonstrations.

The case will seek to balance a group’s free speech rights with the rights of private individuals to be protected from unwanted demonstrations and defamatory remarks. A federal appeals court said the church’s protests were “utterly distasteful” but protected because they were related to “matters of public concern.” …

The funeral protest case is brought by a Maryland father whose son’s 2006 funeral in Westminster was picketed by members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Westboro pastor Fred W. Phelps Sr. contends that the deaths of American soldiers are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality and has organized nearly 43,000 protests since 1991, according to the church’s Web site.

Phelps and members of his church — which consists primarily of him and members of his extended family — say they were not targeting Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in action in Iraq. … The signs they carried at Snyder’s funeral at St. John’s Catholic Church, made in the Kansas church’s on-site sign shop, included, “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Priests Rape Boys.”

America has a long and cherished history of protecting outrageous public speech and even emotionally painful public demonstrations, especially when the dispute is linked to politics, culture or public life. The most famous case would have to have been the march by neo-Nazis through the heavily Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, where, in the late 1970s, one out of every six Jews was a survivor or the descendant of a survivor of the Holocaust.

But we are not here to argue about the court case itself. We’re here to discuss how journalists can handle this media circus with a rare combination of accuracy, balance and perhaps even good taste. When I say balance, I mean that journalists will have to bite their lips and strive for balance when discussing the actual legal and doctrinal views linked to the Westboro case.

Why in the name of God would reporters want to wade into this church’s religious views? Well, for starters, these people insist that faith is why they do what they do (as opposed to, say, economics). To test that claim, it must be accurately discussed. Their right to free speech is directly linked to the First Amendment, by which I mean claims of free speech and religious liberty.

But there’s another reason to dig into the religious part of this story.

Note that the Post did a good job of noting that Westboro is a tiny congregation, almost a family cell group with a handful of disciples. What the story did not do, however, is stress that — like thousands of other “Baptist” flocks of all sizes — this church is totally independent from ties that bind it to any other group that calls itself “Baptist.”

Like I said a few years ago here at GetReligion:

There’s no doubt about it. The Rev. Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., is a Baptist — because he says so.

Then again, so is Bill Clinton. So is Al Gore Jr., now that you mention it. Ditto for the Rev. Bill Moyers, Dr. Harvey Cox and the Rev. Jesse Jackson (last time I checked).

This fact must be stressed, one way or another. It would be good to start with actual quotes about the Westboro crew from Southern Baptist leaders, American Baptist leaders and representatives of the nation’s other Baptist conventions and networks. Trust me, conservative Baptists (and Conservative Baptists, too) will have plenty to say about the theology involved in this story.

Simply stated, it is wrong to hang the actions of the Westboro team around the necks of other Baptists. It would only take one or two sentences to clear this up.

Consider the following Los Angeles Times report on the Supreme Court case, which offers this tiny, insubstantial crust of information about these infamous demonstrators:

… (The) victims were the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, who was killed in combat in Iraq on March 3, 2006. When his family announced his funeral would be held in Westminster, Md., a Kansas preacher decided to travel there with a few followers to protest. In recent years, Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, has been protesting at military funerals around the nation because he believes the United States is too tolerant of homosexuality.

That’s it. And that simply isn’t enough information, as I am sure scores of mainstream Baptist leaders would agree.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    I recently wrote about this, too, for Beliefnet’s new religion news blog. (

    With my “Coffee Talk” reference at the end, I was hinting that there’s an issue here regarding what defines a “Baptist” and what defines a “Church” – not just technically, but what these concepts mean to most people, beyond relying on self-identification. Unfortunately, word counts don’t generally allow for that kind of analysis… I’ll be interested to see what the blogosphere can contribute.

  • Maureen

    Given the revelations a few years ago about Westboro’s doctrinal ideas, it’s rather doubtful that they’re even doctrinally Christian, much less Baptist. They apparently had constituted themselves as some kind of obscure Davidic legend sect.

  • tmatt

    Lots of sympathy for the plight of Baptists, left and right, affected by this kind of coverage among GetReligion readers.

    (Cue: Audible sigh)

  • Bern

    In the context of this particular story, the lack of a qualifier could lead a reader to make a erroneous conclusions about how representative Mr. Snyder’s group is of Baptists in general. Sort of like the “American” Baptist “missionaries” in Haiti. Careless and imprecise, but not criminal. There is some mention of state and local ordinances that have been enacted in the wake of some of Mr. Snyder’s actions: more on that would be interesting as well.

    An in-depth anaylsis of this case would be tremendously interesting: it has all kinds of implications for individuals vs groups rights, one man’s religion vs another’s. If a reporter took up tmatt’s suggestion for interviewing credentialed Baptist spokespersons it would be useful to know the what and how of the doctrine that Mr. Snyder is using as the reason for this particular religious speech.

    Free speech, even religious speech, is not absolute, the classic example is yelling fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire. This case is more like your right to swing your fist ends when your fist makes contact with my nose. IMHO that is what Mr Snyder and his cohorts are doing. It’ll be interesting to see if the SCOTUS agrees.

  • Jon in the Nati

    The problem is, of course, that journalists, even the few who “get religion” are not qualified to make the kind of assessment of whether Mr. Phelps and his people (which, it is instructive to note, are composed mostly of persons related to him by blood or marriage) are Baptists in any meaningful sense.

    There is no doubt in my mind that they are not; they make even the most conservative Baptist sects look like raging liberals. But once a journalist takes the “they are not really Baptists anyhow” tack, it is a short journey from there to being able to say that “x group is not y” in any and all cases. We might be comfortable with journalists saying the WBC is not Baptist, but are we comfortable with journalists saying that Unitarians are not Christian? Or that Catholics who disagree with the Pope are not Catholics? These are not judgments that journalists are able to make.

  • Bob Smietana

    Frank Page, the former Southern Baptist Convention President, has been outspoken about Westboro Baptist, saying they aren’t even Christian, let alone Baptist. Here’s what he said in a Tennessean interview two years ago:

    “People have said, ‘Does it bother you that they are called Baptist?’ I say, it bothers me even more that they are called a church. Remove the Baptist from the issue or the argument. To call yourself a church should hold you to a very high calling and high standard that they do not live to.”

  • Bobby

    My first exposure to this group came when I covered the 2001 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in New Orleans for The Oklahoman.

    I wrote a weekly religion opinion column back then and included this in my rundown of the best and worst of that year’s SBC meeting:

    Worst protester sign: A little girl with blond hair and pink shorts held a sign with a derogatory remark and saying that homosexuals would die and God would laugh when they do. This was as Soulforce, a national gay rights group, demonstrated nearby.

    Shame on her parents.

    The child’s sign did not reflect Southern Baptists’ position. They teach that God loves all people but hates sin. They call homosexuality sin.

    Can’t recall why I didn’t name Westboro specifically in that column.

  • dalea

    The local Topeka paper, whose name I have forgotten, has had extensive coverage on Westboro Baptist for years. Business took me frequently to Topeka in the 80′s and 90′s and I remember reading long insightful research on the church. Unfortunately, the national media did not take up the stories.

    For me the interesting thing to persue would be how WB is financed. Where does the money come from. There have been stories about this in Topeka but no where else.

  • Nathan Schneider

    We’ve been wrestling with this too over at Killing the Buddha since our recent essay on Westboro by Josh Garrett-Davis. I think he took the right approach—treating Phelps as a literary provocateur rather than simply a newsmaker.