Over at the blog Making Light, a short post on how to counteract a protest from the Phelps clan morphed into a clearing house of information about the patriarch himself, Fred Phelps.
You can start with the About Fred Phelps page of the website “God Hates Fred Phelps.” It includes the shocking fact that Phelps began his career as a civil rights lawyer:
Phelps earned a law degree from Washburn University in 1962, and founded the Phelps Chartered law firm in 1964. The first notable cases were of a civil rights nature. “I systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws of this town,” he says. Phelps’ daughter was quoted as saying, “We took on the Jim Crow establishment, and Kansas did not take that sitting down. They used to shoot our car windows out, screaming we were nigger lovers,” and that the Phelps law firm made up one-third of the state’s federal docket of civil-rights cases.
Things went south in 1977 when Phelps developed a vendetta against the court reporter Carolene Brady. He took her to court for failing to produce a transcript when he needed it. The resulting case shows Phelps as more of the man we’ve come to know:
Phelps called Brady to the stand, declared her a hostile witness, and then cross-examined her for nearly a week, during which he accused her of being a “slut,” tried to introduce testimony from former boyfriends whom Phelps wanted to subpoena, and accused her of a variety of perverse sexual acts, ultimately reducing her to tears on the stand.
This must have whet Phelp’s appetite, because from here on out we only see disciplinary actions against Phelps. He loses his license to practice law in Kansas in 1979, then is forced to quit practicing in Federal court in 1989. Later, some of Phelp’s children remarked on their father’s taste for outrage:
During 1993–94 interviews with the Topeka Capital-Journal, the four Phelps children (out of thirteen, Mark, Nate, Katherine and Dotty) who had left the church asserted that their father’s religious beliefs were either nonexistent to begin with or have dwindled down to nearly nothing. They insist that Westboro actually serves to enable a paraphilia of Phelps, wherein he is literally addicted to hatred.
These last words served as the title for a biography of Phelps: Addicted to Hate: The Fred Phelps Story. Phelps managed to block publication, but the text somehow slipped out and is now available on-line.
One of the most interesting bits is a piece entitled Fred Phelps is a Con-Man. The article alleges that:
Fred Phelps does not believe what he is doing. This is a scam. It’s a business. They travel the country, set up websites telling you exactly when they’ll be there, and using the most inflammatory statements all over the place, just to get someone to violate their rights for profit. Then they sue the military, the police force that was to protect them, and everyone that is around them for money. This is a sham, and it is a trap to get people sued. Every member of his family is an attorney. Phelps does not break the law. What he does is try to make you break the law by trying to punch your sensibilities about everything you hold dear, and then sue you and everyone municipality around him to the max.
Unfortunately, the claims are not sourced, and the piece itself is anonymous (not that I can complain). But another commentator chimes in with a link to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Phelps Timeline from 2001, which definitely shows a pattern, “Before the end of his legal career in 1989, Phelps will file some 400 suits, mostly in federal court. Estranged son Nathan Phelps will claim later that part of his father’s strategy is to file frivolous lawsuits in the hope that his targets will settle to avoid the costs of defense.”
The claim is strengthened by another commentator, under the handle “SuedByAWBCMoppet,” who explains that he/she was sued for “verbally abusing a minor” after getting into an altercation with the family on the sidewalk in front of his/her home. “And [I] have NO doubt and plenty of personal experience that they WILL sue you in civil court if they possibly can. I recommend not engaging them, at all…. I caution you not to engage them, not to confront them. That’s exactly what they want.”
On the whole, we get a more in-depth picture of the WBC crowd. More than just an extreme form of Fundamentalist, Phelps seems to be a lunatic, a cynical con-man, or some combination thereof.