Search Results for: Westboro


(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.

Dead soldiers and religious freedom

Not that I want to encourage more coverage of Westboro Baptist Church, but this was worth bringing up.

Westboro — you probably know them as the proprietor of — got a lot of attention this weekend on two separate though related fronts (and on a third one tmatt discussed yesterday). What’s surprising is which of the main two stories got more play.

The big news was that Westboro’s angry band of picketers traveled from Kansas to New York to protest outside a Brooklyn high school and then a Long Island synagogue. “Hate-mongering Kansans begin their assault on NY Jews” was the headline from the New York Post. Newsday offered a little more about the Great Neck protest:

The Westboro demonstrators carried signs declaring “God Hates Jews,” “America is Doomed,” “God is Your Enemy,” and others using a derogatory term for homosexuals. They also sang songs and shouted at protesters and passing motorists.

What I couldn’t figure out was why Westboro was picketing Jews. (Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield takes a stab.) Seems like an unusual combination of democratic tools for social change and medieval attempts at religious coercion. But the articles didn’t really address that. It’s not important. This wasn’t the important news concerning Westboro.

What was — and was much harder to find coverage of outside of Kansas and this brief in The New York Times — was an appellate court ruling that Westboro’s practices of offensive picketing is constitutionally protected. The locus quo was a soldier’s funeral, the saga of which Daniel Pulliam discussed last year. Now, the news from the Topeka Capitol-Journal:

A federal appeals court on Thursday favored civil rights over popularity when it reversed a civil lawsuit won by the father of a fallen U.S. Marine against members of Westboro Baptist Church.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled that protest signs carried by church members in March 2006 outside the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md., were protected by the First Amendment.

With that, the $5 million judgment and lien on the church’s building and law firm in Topeka have been dismissed.

Calling from New York City where she was protesting at the United Nations building, church spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper said she was happy Albert Snyder, the Marine’s father, had filed the lawsuit.

“If he hadn’t put us on trial, we wouldn’t have exploded around the world,” she said of the media exposure.

That is, sadly, quite true. This also might earn Westboro the immortality of a lawschool casebook. But why, for what seems like such a significant ruling, was there so little coverage?

RNS filed a shorty, and the Associated Baptist Press covered the boilerplate and Westboro background and picked out this choice quote from the appellate court:

Paraphrasing a ruling in another case invoking the First Amendment, the court said judges defending the Constitution “must sometimes share their foxhole with scoundrels of every sort, but to abandon the post because of the poor company is to sell freedom cheaply.”

The Baltimore Sun, the Snyder’s local paper, played this story surprisingly straight, reporting on the ruling, quoting Westboro, quoting the Snyder’s attorney, who plans to appeal, and then closing with this quote from Margie Jean Phelps, a Westboro attorney and daughter of founder Fred Phelps:

“The amount was set with a goal, and the goal was to silence us,” said Margie Jean Phelps. “In this country, you don’t get to claim damage over words you don’t agree with. … Because we’ve trained a nation of crybabies doesn’t mean we change the law.”

What I don’t understand from the coverage is why this is an appropriate means of religious communication. The court only ruled that it was legal. But is it expedient?

It seems to me that a disservice is being done when journalists write Westboro off as a bunch of wacky fundamentalists without digging through the noise of their offensiveness to identify the elements of their basic approach that also bear scrutiny. So Westboroites believe God is sending home dead soldiers to punish Americans for accepting homosexuality (and Jews) — how in the world do they get from this belief to religious obligation that they share it at funerals?

To me, the issue doesn’t seem to be so much religious as it is free speech shrouded in the double protection of speech and religion. If both are essential, OK. But how about asking why.

The above clip from “Hannity & Colmes” is painful, and the Westboro Baptist comments thanking God for 9/11 and dead soldiers only make it more so.

Who you calling Pentecostal?

Gay_friendly_churchDon’t tell the folks at Westboro Baptist Church, but there was a story out of Kentucky last week that was bound to be circulated in newspapers and on TV Web sites. “Church to ordain sex offender” was the headline of an AP report from the Cincinnati Enquirer. First the news, then I’ll get to what was missing from it:

LOUISVILLE – A small Kentucky church is planning to ordain a convicted sex offender as a minister to its flock.

The decision has led some members of an abuse victims group to ask the church to reconsider.

Members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests met outside the church Thursday and said in a letter that the ordination would be “a reckless move that will only put kids in harm’s way.” The group sent the letter to the church asking that it postpone any action and hold a public hearing.

At which point you might be wondering just what kind of church this is. The strange thing: The AP never says. It does, however, mention that it’s a “church that welcomes gays, lesbians and transgenders.” Not sure what parallels the AP did and didn’t intend to draw between child molesters and gays or why in the final paragraph the wire service refers to the church as Pentecostal.

That last one really got my attention. It’s been a while since I’ve encountered an open and affirming Pentecostal church. In fact, I never have. Surely the organization affiliation of such an unusual church needs to be mentioned. (I’m pretty sure it’s not Foursquare.)

Fortunately, we can thank Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal for doing some actual reporting — and reader Mike for passing this along.

To begin with, if City of Refuge Worship Center is Pentecostal, it’s not part of any denomination but would be so based on the formative Christian years of its pastor, Randy Meadows. That was immediately apparent when I visited the church’s website, and Smith picks up on it:

City of Refuge, an independent congregation on Goss Avenue that touts its acceptance of people of diverse sexual orientations and identities, plans to ordain Mark Edward Hourigan Sunday, according to a WHAS-TV report.

Hourigan, 41, of Rowena Road, is listed on the Kentucky State Police Sex Offender Registry, which says he was convicted of two counts of first-degree sexual abuse of an 11-year-old.

Randy Meadows, pastor of the congregation, did not return phone messages. When a reporter visited the church Wednesday night before its midweek service, a woman at Meadows’ office said the church was not granting interviews.

According to WHAS, Meadows defended the approaching ordination.

“God is a loving and forgiving God, and I’m doing what he’s telling me to do. And if that’s not popular, Jesus wasn’t either,” he was quoted as saying, adding that Hourigan would not be alone with children.

In an interview with CNN, Hourigan said: “God can use me to reach out to those people that need that hope and need that light. … I’ve learned that I have to change the way that I think in order to change my actions and my behaviors, and I’ve learned a lot of things as far as what situations not to place myself in.”

Trouble is, it’s the AP story that’s been picked up by smaller papers and appears to have been re-written by the Christian Post without re-visiting the Pentecostal question.

It seems pretty obvious the reporter didn’t really understand the greater complexities involved in this story, other than the fact that a church was ordained a sex offender and SNAP was protesting. The reporter was diligent and at least consulted the church’s Website for background info, but he really missed the mark.

The City of Refuge story reminds me of one I wrote four years ago for The Sun in San Bernardino. (It’s no longer online.) The article had nothing to do with a convicted sex offender being ordained — and that is an odd story hook, indeed — but involved the same themes of establishing a church to the LGBT community. Notice the difference in approach and the attention I paid to the church founder’s pastoral roots:

Three months after being ordained in a conservative Christian denomination, the Rev. Micah Royal found himself wrestling with his church’s condemnation of homosexual and transgender lifestyles.

So the 26-year-old assistant pastor left that church. Soon after, his 23-year-old wife, who had attended the World-wide Church of God with him, confessed she could no longer keep secret her attraction to women.

A year later, the former evangelical minister has launched Safe Haven Community Church. The nascent Colton congregation is reaching out to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, as well as those, with mental and physical disabilities.

“There are too many people out there judging. And we really needed a place we all could go and feel loved and comfortable,’ Royal said. “Who people are is a gift from God to be celebrated not to be looked down on.”

This was not a good story, only 459 words and written in my second year as a professional reporter. It was, for lack of a better expression, nothing to write home about. But if a rookie reporter can identify the importance of something so simple, is it too much to ask of the veterans at the AP?

PHOTO: An open-and-affirming church from Wikimedia Commons

Hate preachers anonymous

Bubble bubble, toil and trouble.

That’s what seemed to be brewing in the land of Shakespeare when it became public knowledge that British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith had banned 22 people from entering the country (only 16 are named). Apparently the drawbridges against the “least-wanted” have been raised since October, but Smith only just made the decision to publish the list, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

What’s the religion angle here? Well, a number of the folks on that list are identified with extremist branches of a denomination, or, like American “shock-jock” Michael Savage, have had controversial encounters with Catholics, Islamic groups and Jews.

Others include a Lebanese who killed four Israeli soldiers, and a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

None of the articles I saw did an in-depth job of explaining the religious angles, and a few were simply misleading — possibly understandable on a day when Smith’s comments and Savage’s threat to sue Smith for defamation were so compelling.

Here’s a lede from a story on the Independent website:

Sixteen people banned from entering the UK were “named and shamed” by the Home Office today.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she decided to make public the names of 16 people banned since October so others could better understand what sort of behaviour Britain was not prepared to tolerate.

The list includes hate preachers, anti-gay protesters and a far- right US talk show host

What is a “hate preacher”? Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church and his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper apparently fit that bill. Phelps is identified in this article as an “American Baptist.” Yes, he is American, and yes, he is a Baptist, but he certainly is not a member of the liberal mainline American Baptist Churches, USA (nor of the Southern Baptists).

Later in the same story, “Jewish extremist” Mike Guzovsky is named, without any explanation of his nationality or why he is on the list. Although apparently the government provided few details, the Los Angeles Times was able to come up with a few of its own:

Among those named were Yunis al-Astal, a radical anti-Western Islamic cleric and Hamas member in the Gaza Strip; Mike Guzovsky, an Israeli Jewish extremist said to be involved in militant training camps; and Artur Ryno and Pavel Skachevsky, Russian skinheads who, as teenagers, boasted two years ago of killing about 20 members of ethnic minorities.

Overall, CNN did a better job of exploring the angle probably most interesting, and most controversial to American readers — including Michael Savage on a list with murderers. It also gives a fuller picture of Fred Phelps and his daughter. However, it doesn’t explain why the Islamic clerics were included — and what kind of “hate” they were preaching.

Outspoken Kansas Rev. Fred Phelps and his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, are also listed for “engaging in unacceptable behavior and fostering hatred.”

Phelps and his followers at Westboro Baptist Church oppose homosexuality. They picket the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, saying their deaths are God’s way of punishing the United States for supporting homosexuals. They have expressed similar views about the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

The church’s slogan is “God Hates Fags.”

The story does have a slightly farcical element, always appealing to the British press. According to the Times of London, most of the people on the list hadn’t applied for permission to visit Britain anyway. Two of them are serving 20-year sentences in Russian prisons.

So many questions here — can you legislate appropriate speech? Isn’t there a difference between a Savage, a Phelps, and a skinhead? A discussion of what it means to “preach hate” in a free society, when the right to free speech infringes on someone else’s rights, and what can be done to counter “hate speech” would be instructive — but will probably get subsumed in media chatter about Labor Party strategy and whether Michael Savage, “shock-jock” extraordinaire, will be able to win the lawsuit he is planning agains the woman he calls a “witch.” And by witch, I doubt he means Wiccan — although we might be hearing from them soon, too.

Jaws: The Christmas special

DKMZY SANTA JAWS 1Tell me, you dedicated readers of religion news, can you imagine anything worse than seeing the following pairs of words in the same story — “Fred Phelps” and “Christmas wars.”

Actually, a “Christmas wars” link is merely implied in the mess that is getting started — probably — at the state capitol in Washington state.

What? You haven’t heard? Here’s the news, care of the Spokesman-Review:

OLYMPIA – The emotional saga over religious displays at Washington’s state Capitol grew more bizarre Wednesday, as a controversial Kansas group requested permission to put up a sign titled “Santa Claus Will Take You to Hell.”

The Westboro Baptist Church, which spreads its virulently anti-gay message by demonstrating at funerals and high-profile events, wants the sign posted near a Nativity scene and atheist sign at the Capitol. The sign claims that “God’s hate” is to blame for the weak economy, that Santa is a child molester, and that the deaths of U.S. troops are somehow the fault of Santa.

“Holy cow,” said Steve Valandra, a spokesman for Washington’s Department of General Administration, when e-mailed the text. “I guess we’ll consider it like all the other requests.”

No, believe it or not, there are no signs — yet — of prejudice against St. Nicholas (the ancient Christian saint from Myra) in this story. It may take time for Phelps and family to find that angle.

So what, you ask, is the actual news story that is buried under this stuff?

That’s where the “Christmas wars” roots show up. You see, this is another equal access story.

Once the state decides that its job is to sponsor forums about religious diversity, this is where things end up. Just for the record, I wish that churches and private organizations offered waves of real, undiluted Christmas displays as far as the eye can see and that states fled the generic holiday decorations business altogether. Don’t deck the city halls, people. Is anyone out there writing anything about that option?

But let’s return to “Jaws: The Christmas special.”

State officials say that after a lawsuit a couple of years ago to allow the Nativity scene, they cannot discriminate among holiday displays. …

Washington’s Capitol has been in the national spotlight for more than a week. Thousands of people from across the country have called the governor’s office over the state’s decision to allow the atheist sign next to the Nativity scene on the Statehouse’s third floor. A large evergreen “Holiday Tree” surrounded by gifts has been erected in the Capitol rotunda each December for decades.

The atheist sign was stolen last week, recovered hours later by state police, and reinstalled in its display case. Since then, religious groups have added signs critical of atheism. State officials ordered the displays roped off to protect them. Security cameras and a state trooper now watch over the competing displays.

Wait! Here comes the Flying Spaghetti Monster lawyers! And what about Festivus?

Actually, this is a pretty solid story. Trust me, I really feel for reporters that have to cover this. I know that it’s hard to offer the facts about the law in this kind of church-state circus. Meanwhile, please help me keep an eye open for the more serious follow-up reports. Sad to say, but this is a real story. Tragic, even.

With Baptists like these

godhates 01I’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?

Define ‘Baptist,’ give three examples

westboro 2There’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).

What’s the point? Well, one of the big stories of the week was that a federal jury in Baltimore delivered a $10.9 million verdict against Phelps and his Westboro congregation, due to its ugly protests at the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, who died in Iraq.

It’s a story that everyone, or almost everyone, wishes would go away. It’s the dark side of free speech and it’s hard to know where to draw the line. Can ACT UP crash a Mass? How far could protesters go at a funeral for, let’s say, Vice President Dick Cheney if he died with the Iraq war still raging? Is a soldier a “public figure” if he died in a war? So many ugly, ugly questions.

Veteran Julia Duin of The Washington Times found an interesting angle on all of this, the one I was hinting at with my references to Phelps, Clinton, et al.

How would you like to be a Baptist minister in Kansas right now? How would you like to have the same brand name on your church sign as the Westboro crew? Duin wrote this, focusing on the efforts of other Baptists to disavow Phelps and his church:

Although the 75-member church led by the Rev. Fred Phelps uses the name “Baptist,” it is an independent congregation not affiliated with any known Baptist convention or association.

“It’s a little bit frustrating,” said a ministry official at First Baptist Church of Topeka, who asked that his name not be used.

“People want to know why Baptists allow it,” the First Baptist official said. “Every church is locally autonomous, and anybody can call themselves ‘Baptist’ if they want to.” Speaking of the Westboro congregation, he said, “Their views don’t reflect anything at all of our church.”

One of Westboro Baptist Church’s most vociferous opponents has been the Southern Baptist Convention, chiefly because Mr. Phelps was ordained an SBC minister in 1947 at age 17. It is not clear when he left the denomination, but Westboro was founded in 1955 as an independent church.

godhatesSo what does the word “Baptist” mean, in the first place? I grew up in the home of a Southern Baptist pastor and executive and, you know what, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone agree on a common definition. Here is one online take:

A member of an evangelical Protestant church of congregational polity, following the reformed tradition in worship, and believing in individual freedom, in the separation of church and state, and in baptism of voluntary, conscious believers.

Ah, but the Baptists predate the “evangelical” movement. And is that “reformed” or “Reformed”? And are Baptists united in a common definition of the “separation of church and state”? Clearly not.

So you have to start stacking up the adjectives. Duin notes:

Westboro describes itself on its Web site as an “old school or primitive Baptist” congregation. Primitive Baptists are a decentralized denomination scattered across the country. A call to their Arkansas headquarters got no response.

Mr. Phelps describes himself on the same site as a “five-point Calvinist who urges all people to carefully study and discern what are the signs of the times.” The church also says it is a “TULIP Baptist church,” referring to the acronym TULIP for the five points of Calvinist thought: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints.

As you would imagine, that draws yowls from Calvinists. It isn’t fair to pin Phelps on them, either.

So what should the totally free-church Baptists do to shut down a free-church Baptist without violating all the principles of what it means to be a free-church Baptist?

Just asking. It’s a sad story and, alas, a good news story.

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.