A Baptist church famous for protesting events including Matthew Shepard’s funeral and various religious gatherings over the last decade with its distinctive message of “God Hates Fags” has a new target–the funerals of fallen soldiers.
After picketing productions of “The Laramie Project”–the true story of the murder of 21-year-old college student Matthew Shepard of Laramie, Wyo., who was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in 1998 because he was gay–and homosexual programs at schools and churches, protestors from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., in June began showing up at military funerals with claims that God is killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq to punish America’s tolerance of homosexuality.
“They turned America over to fags; they’re coming home in body bags,” said a flyer announcing Saturday’s picket at services for Army Staff Sgt. Asbury Hawn II at First United Methodist Church in Smyrna, Tenn.
“The God they say that blesses America also can curse America, and is cursing America in a mighty way,” Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the church’s pastor, Fred Phelps, said of nearby counter-protestors and by-passers in cars shouting comments at the small group carrying picket signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God is America’s Terrorist.”
Hawn, 34, was killed Aug. 14 in an ambush on his unit’s Humvee by enemy forces using rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.
Westboro protestors say the device is like an improvised explosive device (IED) used in a pipe-bomb attack on a church member’s property in 1995.
“America bombed our church using an IED made by fag students at WashburnU. in Topeka,” says a flyer. “In his retaliatory wrath, God is killing Americans with Muslim IEDs. ‘As it is written: vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.'”
According to reports on the church Web site, a pipe bomb exploded outside of Phelps-Roper’s home, adjacent to the church property, on Aug. 22, 1995.
Topeka police initially said they didn’t believe the Phelps family was the target of the attack. Phelps said the bombers mistakenly believed he lived there, rather than his daughter and her family, and were trying to kill him.
The church offered a $5,000 reward, and Phelps later publicly named two suspects he said were identified by informants.
One of the two, 26-year-old Kent B. Lindstrom, was sentenced to 16 days in jail and two years probation after pleading no contest to what the sentencing judge described as an “act of terrorism.”
Lindstrom said he regretted involvement in an act he described as “an immature and dangerous prank.” His lawyer said there was no evidence to support Phelps’ claim that Lindstrom and others attempted to blow up the house, comparing the device to “a large firecracker.”
Lindstrom also was ordered to pay $1,700 in restitution for damage to a family van and a fence.
Phelps said it was just one in a string of incidents of vandalism and intimidation aimed at silencing his church’s message that sodomy is a sin.
Other flyers on the Westboro Baptist Church Web site say God’s judgment on Americans serving in Iraq stems from gays in the military and the fact that Vice President Dick Cheney has a daughter who is a lesbian.
One contains an “open letter to Cindy Sheehan,” the mother protesting in Crawford, Texas, to ask Bush the question, “Why did my son die in Iraq?”
“Asking Bush a question like that is like asking an orangutan to teach table manners,” it says. “Bush is a simplistic, irreversibly hell-bound hypocrite without God in this world. He’s clueless.”
“Why did your son die in Iraq? Because God Almighty killed him and cast him into Hell–where you will one day join him and his soldier pals, all cursing each other bitterly as you are tormented with fire and brimstone,” the letter continues.
According to a counter on the Web site, there have been more than 5.3 million visitors to GodHatesFags.com.
The church’s Web site defends use of the term “fag,” saying it is short for “faggot,” a word that originally meant a bundle of sticks used for fuel. It refers to persons who “sin like the Sodomites did,” fueling God’s wrath and who will burn in hell.
But Phelps goes even further, applying the term not only to homosexuals, but also to people who support homosexuals and engage in “lesser perversions” like adultery and remarriage after divorce.
In addition to labeling as “fag churches” groups including the Episcopal Church, Metropolitan Community Church, Unitarian Universalists and others, he also says churches not listed like Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God “are as much to blame” for America’s acceptance of homosexuality because “they have created an atmosphere in this world where people believe the lie that God loves everybody.”
“This soul-damning lie is the reason that fags are so out-spoken today,” the site explains. “If God loves them, why should they repent? Why not continue in their sins? Fags march half- or fully-naked in their ‘gay pride’ parades singing ‘Jesus loves me.’
“If you’re one of those fools who goes around parroting that ‘God loves everyone,’ this world’s condition is YOUR FAULT. Don’t listen to heretics like Billy Graham–listen to God. Take a stand. Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet and show these people their sins. Preach a little hellfire and brimstone, you cowards. Stop being concerned with what men think about you.”
While in Middle Tennessee, the protestors also planned to picket the funeral of Sgt. Gary L. Reese Jr. of AshlandCity.
“Honestly, I think it’s disrespectful,” Reese’s father, Gary Reese, told the NashvilleTennessean. “The irony is my son lost his life trying to spread the freedom that grants these people the right to do this. I don’t appreciate it, and I certainly don’t support it.”
But Roper said in an interview at Saturday’s protest that the group’s presence is not about meanness, but rather to “let America know of this abomination.”
“We have to be timely. We have be topical,” she said. “That is what we are doing.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.