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Fred Phelps, 80, almost became one of those soldiers he now disparages. He earned an appointment to West Point in 1946, but after going to a Methodist revival meeting, he decided to skip the Army and attend Bob Jones University. He founded Westboro in 1955. The independent church, which the Southern Baptists Convention has roundly denounced, is not only anti-gay but also anti-Catholic (because priests are pedophiles), anti-Semitic (because Jews killed Jesus) and anti-America (because it's home to all these heathens). "You cannot preach the Bible," Phelps shouted at a recent service, "if you don't preach God's hate!"
The Phelpses may be misguided, but they are not dumb. Income from their mainstream jobs--in human resources, nursing and so on--funds their protests. Eleven of Fred's 13 children have law degrees; Westboro is adept at pushing the boundaries of free speech. In July, for example, the church challenged the constitutionality of Nebraska's flag-desecration law, and a federal judge struck it down. Within the past two months, the Phelpses also scored legal victories in Missouri, where judges ruled the state restrictions on funeral picketing unconstitutional.
The family started picketing in 1991, when they protested at a Topeka park supposedly frequented by gays. They now picket everything from routine services at other churches to high school performances of The Laramie Project, a play about gay hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard. The family says it has held daily pickets for 1,004 consecutive weeks, often at funerals.
Why go after mourners? "Because they need me," Fred Phelps says calmly, leaning back in his office chair, wearing a black Adidas jacket. "These poor souls. What forum is more ideal when your message is that you have turned this country over to the sodomites?" When asked if hearing about a soldier's death really makes his heart swell with joy, Phelps nods as if he's just been offered a sandwich. "Because we've been telling people that God is going to do this to them. Because that's the way God rolls."
The Phelpses search the Internet for military funeral announcements, then notify local police before heading to a picket location. Usually, warnings trickle down from cops to families. Mostly in response to Westboro protests, 43 states have passed laws restricting the time or place of funeral picketing.
Often the protests stun passersby more than the families who have been forewarned. This summer in Omaha, 16 Westboro members picketed a Marine's funeral; among them was a 6-year-old girl, wearing gray shorts dotted with pink hearts and yellow stars, who held a "You're going to hell" sign and sang "God Hates the World" to the tune of "We Are the World." Steve Gurciullo, a sprinkler installer, happened upon the scene while he was out grabbing coffee. "This is a sad day in America," he said as he stared at the protesters. "Here we have a soldier dying for scum like that? You might as well be urinating on his headstone." Gurciullo marched across the street toward the protesters, but police restrained him from going after them.