Matthew Shepard, The Westboro Baptist Church, and the American Conscience

On a slightly elevated plain just east of Laramie, Wyoming on October 7, 1998, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson beat and tortured Matthew Shepard nearly to death, tied him to a buck fence, and left him for dead. After being discovered by a passing cyclist, Shepard was transported to a Fort Collins, Colorado hospital where he was kept alive by artificial means. The University of Wyoming student died on October 12, 1998 without ever regaining consciousness. McKinney and Henderson were convicted of the crime but spared the death sentence due to an agreement brokered between the court and Matt’s parents. In small or large part, Matt had been targeted because he was Gay.

Hate isn’t always just an emotion or some abstract state of mind. In fact, it becomes a horrible physical manifestation when young men like Matthew Shepard are brutally murdered. Hate even has an address. In this case, it resides at 3701 SW12th Street in Topeka, Kansas, where it lives with the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) community and its leader, the Reverend Fred Phelps, who, along with his congregation, has made headlines around the world for hostile public declarations and incendiary protests against people and causes he considers to be sinful in the eyes of God.

Phelps was ordained in the Southern Baptist faith, but he split from his comparatively orthodox colleagues in 1954 to form WBC, claiming that the new church followed Primitive Baptist and Calvinist principles. In respect to other denominations of the Christian faith, Phelps’ church declared that other churches were sending their members to Hell. Phelps has grown even firmer in his convictions over the years. For instance, he has characterized Catholic priests as “vampires” and “Draculas” and labeled Pope Benedict XVI as “the godfather of the pedophiles.” To almost no one’s surprise, WBC is not recognized by the Baptist World Alliance or the Southern Baptist conventions and denounced by both denominations for its radical theological views and unsettling political agenda.

In 1991, seeking a crackdown on homosexual activity allegedly occurring in Topeka’s Gage Park, WBC members organized their first public protest. This triggered an infamous sequence of events. In a similar vein, in 1998, the church garnered national attention for traveling to Wyoming to protest during Matt Shepard’s funeral. Children picketed next to adults, holding signs that shouted “Matthew Shepard Burns in Hell” and “Thank God for AIDS.” WBC celebrated Shepard’s “entry into hell” and claimed that Matt brought his own death upon himself by “trolling for homosexual sex in a bar.” In an effort to spare Matt’s parents from viewing the demonstration, several of his friends dressed as angels with large wings that overlapped, blocking the protesters from sight.

Since then, WBC has expanded its activities, taking its message across the nation. Although Phelps earned a law degree in 1964, he was disbarred and prohibited from practicing law in Kansas. This has not stopped him from remaining politically active. His church pickets every day in Topeka and claims to have staged over 41,000 demonstrations in 880 cities nationwide, spending an estimated $200,000 annually traveling to other locations to protest.

In addition to protesting the homosexual lifestyle and various mainstream religious institutions, WBC also targets businesses. For instance, church members threatened to picket the funeral of founder Steve Jobs until they learned the funeral would be private. In a stroke of stunning irony, church leader Margie Phelps tweeted from her iPhone: “[Steve Jobs] had a huge platform; gave God no glory & taught sin.” In another tweet, Margie assured her followers that Jobs “is in hell.” WBC has also targeted the Irish race, Andy Griffith, and Mr. Rogers., the church’s website, has links to planned protests by church members and detailed insight into the church’s ideologies. WBC uses its exposure to call attention to other protests, including ones at funerals for U.S. soldiers killed overseas, linking soldiers to America’s increasing support of gays and claiming that God had killed them in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the church has protested at Arlington National Cemetery in its “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” campaign. WBC members sport signs with slogans such as “your gay son or daughter burns in hell” and “God Hates Fag Enablers.” The church also maintains that 9/11 was a punishment from God and that “no matter how many candlelight vigils are held, this will not reduce Matt’s eternal sentence by even one day.”

The “hate” agenda perpetuated by the WBC is so intense that their protests have drawn the attention of groups that meet the protesters and attempt to neutralize the negative connotations by physically blocking the protesters from view. A Facebook page called for volunteers to block the sight of the church members when they arrived to protest the theater shooting in Aurora, CO.

On January 11, 2011, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed emergency legislation that prohibited picketing within 300 feet of the funeral for the victims of a Tuscon mass shooting one hour prior to and one hour after the event. WBC had announced its intentions to protest at the funerals of shooting victims, according to “Such despicable acts of emotional terrorism will not be tolerated in the State of Arizona,” Brewer said in a statement announcing she had signed the bill. “This legislation will assure that the victims of Saturday’s tragic shooting in Tucson will be laid to rest in peace with the full dignity and respect that they deserve,” according to CNN.

Several states have enacted similar legislation. However, other states ruled that the law violated the church’s right to free speech and overturned the bills. Despite a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that such laws were indeed in violation of the church’s right to free speech, President Obama signed into law a bill that was specifically aimed at the WBC.

Despite being labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, a spokesman for the WBC stated that nothing will change their plans to picket and protest, no matter what laws are passed to ban their presence. A detailed inspection of the church’s website reveals absolutely nothing that would indicate the focus of the church is love, understanding, and acceptance.

Judy Shepard, Matt’s mother, advocates for GLBT rights through the Matthew Shepard Foundation and lobbies for enactment of hate-crime legislation. Standing at the site of the crime, one can easily imagine that night 14 years ago, the lights of Laramie twinkling in the distance as Matt was brutally beaten and left for dead. Since then, a housing development has grown up around the spot, but the non-urban setting still allows visitors to get a sense of the former isolation. A paramedic who attended to Matt at the scene described how his face was completely covered in blood except for thin streaks where tears had rolled down his face.