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“God Hates Fags!” Is It Free Speech?: An Interview with Margie Phelps

By John W. Whitehead
August 16, 2010

You can’t preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God.—Fred Phelps

There are over 600,000 so-called houses of worship in this country and over 2,000,000 so-called clergy in this country. None of them outside of Westboro Baptist Church are doing right. They don’t have orderly walking members. They don’t have faithful preachers. They fill up the pews and the pulpits with proud sinners and you gloss over it all with the lie that “God loves everybody.” Once you did that, it was time—that is, if I may put this a little crudely—to bend over and take your sodomizing. That is why the homosexuals who are about 3% of the population have a choke hold on all of us.—Margie Phelps

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear Snyder v. Phelps, a case dealing with anti-gay protests at the funerals of American soldiers, is stirring up debate over whether the privacy rights of grieving families trumps the free speech rights of demonstrators.

Albert Snyder
Albert Synder, father of slain soldier.

The case arose after members of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church picketed the Maryland funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in combat in Iraq on March 3, 2006. As part of their protests, church members held up signs during Snyder’s funeral which stated, among other things, “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “Fag Troops,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

Snyder’s father, Albert, filed suit against Westboro Baptist Church and was awarded more than $10 million in damages. That amount was later thrown out by a federal appeals court, which ruled that Westboro’s signs could not reasonably be understood to be referring directly to Snyder and his son, who was not gay. As distasteful as Phelps’ rhetoric might be, stated the court, it constituted protected speech that focused on issues of national debate.

Distasteful is a mild description of Westboro’s anti-gay protests. For example, during staged protests over Memorial Day weekend at Arlington National Cemetery, members of Phelps’ group sing “God Hates America” to the tune of “God Bless America” and hold signs that read “God is America’s terror,” “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “You’re going to hell.”

Phelps and his Westboro congregants have become old pros at staging these funeral protests. In fact, since 1991 (according to its website), Westboro’s members have carried out 42,840 demonstrations at homosexual parades and other events, including more than 200 military funerals of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Insisting that God is killing American soldiers in order to punish America for its openness to homosexuality, church members have proclaimed, “You turned the country over to fags, these soldiers are coming home in body bags.”

Westboro’s protests have managed to garner a great deal of publicity. Consisting mainly of Phelps and his extended family, Westboro Baptist Church became infamous in 1991 for its “God Hates Fags” message, which is also the name of its website. As the website explains, “By the time a person reaches the state of hard core, defiant, unrepentant, homosexual lifestyle, God has washed His hands of that person. God does not hate them because they are homosexuals; they are homosexuals because God hates them.”

Yet it wasn’t until the controversial death of Mathew Shepard in 1998 that Westboro attained a level of public notoriety. Shepard, a 21-year-old Wyoming college student, was brutally beaten and left for dead, reportedly because he was gay. Westboro members picketed Shepard’s funeral and the murder trial of the men who had killed him with signs stating that Shepard was in hell for being gay.

However, Westboro not only condemns those who are openly homosexual but also those who do not speak out against homosexuality. For example, accusing Chief Justice William Rehnquist of not protecting the United States against homosexuality, they picketed his September 2005 funeral with signs reading “Judge in Hell.”

In fact, Westboro sees nearly every national disaster and act of human depravity as God punishing America for its stance on “fags”—and they go so far as to thank God for these tragedies. They insist that the Space Shuttle Columbia crashed as a way to punish the U.S., NASA and the astronauts for not using their position to speak out against homosexuality. They offered prayers of thanksgiving after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and even traveled to New York City to protest rescue efforts, mock victims and urge that those who were still alive should be left there to die. They also praised the devastation resulting from the tsunami in Asia and Hurricane Katrina as God’s way of punishing those who have let the “fags” take over the world. Church members even protested the District of Columbia’s decision to approve gay marriage. Margie Phelps, Fred’s daughter and an active participant in the Westboro demonstrations, said she is spewing the “righteous, perfect hate of God.” Gay marriage, she said, “will be the final straw. This nation will have passed the final line with God and this will be destroyed.”

Of course, many, including conservative Christians, view Westboro’s actions as deplorable, particularly their protests at military funerals. However, whether such tasteless protests are illegal and outside the protection of the First Amendment is another matter altogether—and one that has given rise to a national furor.

Margie Phelps (above): "Our role is simple. We are prophets and prophetesses."

Forty-one states have now passed laws limiting demonstrations at funerals. On a national level, federal legislation essentially bars free speech demonstrations within certain distances of cemeteries. This over-reaching law bans “any picketing, any speech, the display of any banner, flag or the distribution of any handbill, pamphlet,” etc., at funerals. What this means is that any citizen even engaged in such nondisruptive expression as carrying an American flag while mourning the death of a slain soldier could also be in violation of the law. Moreover, anyone violating this law would face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

Margie Phelps has received a lot of publicity and even notoriety for her affiliation with the Westboro Baptist Church. She serves as the attorney for Westboro and will be arguing Westboro’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The daughter of pastor Fred Phelps and a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, Margie Phelps is a practicing attorney with the law firm Phelps-Chartered. Margie received her B.A. in Corrections & Criminal Justice in 1978 from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, and her J.D. from the Washburn University School of Law in 1981. Margie is also a corrections manager and has an active consulting practice. She specializes in the areas of employment and constitutional law, appellate practice, and medical malpractice.

Margie Phelps took a few minutes to speak with me about her religious beliefs and legal battles.

John W. Whitehead: Your theological position is that God hates America. Why does God hate America at this particular point in time? Why do you feel that you have to get out there and proclaim this message? And if you believe God is speaking through you, are you God’s messenger? What is your role in all of this?

Margie Phelps: Our role is simple. We are prophets and prophetesses. Throughout the history of humankind, there have been some people on the earth who have an unction with God, whose hearts He impresses with light, knowledge and understanding. The Scripture bespeaks that that occurs by example—that is, it describes the human engaged in that activity and then biblical passages that speak to God telling his people what He will do.

Will God do a thing and not tell his people? Of course, that is a rhetorical question—He won’t. As the passage in Isaiah says, God won’t spring something on His people without showing them what He will do. It is like the example of God telling Abraham that he was going to destroy Sodom; or like the example of telling Noah that after 120 years he was going to destroy the world by a flood; or like the example of telling Jeremiah specifically what was going to happen to Judah and so on and so on.

So there have always been prophets, and anybody who professes Christianity has to agree that there have always been prophets. So the question becomes: who are those people? That is our role.

As to why we say God hates America, of course that is an elliptical term that fits on a sign that captures people’s attention so that you can flush it out. And the flush-out is a nation that forgets God will be turned into hell. We are not talking about a nation where there are some sinners over in a corner who either quietly, privately engage in sin and no one knows about it except those immediately around them, or they engage in a sin and then it becomes public and they are remorseful and they repent. That is not what goes on in this nation. This is a nation that has institutionalized sin at every level.

I was talking to a young man on the street the other day and while he had not announced it, it was evident that he was a member of the military. I said, “Tell me an institution in this country that does not aggressively teach fornication, adultery, divorce and remarriage which Christ said is adultery, idolatry, greed, pride, murder. Name the institution that doesn’t teach that?” Well, he reared back and puffed up his chest and said, “The United States military”—to which I laughed out loud. If I had to list the institutions in rank order by who’s doing it the worst, right after the churches would be the military.

Every institution in this country not only teaches sin in word and deed but is proud of it and teaches you to be proud of it and sticks your face up into God’s face demanding that He bless you in spite of it. Now that is the condition of this nation. This nation had enormous blessings from the Lord God—like people in the pulpit who preached about hell, who warned you about your sin, who actually told you what the Bible really says. And that went well for a while, but then like King Asa, they commenced giving themselves the glory.

JW: Let me raise an issue. In the Bible belt, the divorce rate is at least 50%. It is very high even in Christian churches in general. Isn’t divorce a bigger issue than homosexuality because divorce destroys families and people’s lives?

MP: Look, they are all big issues and we preach about all of them. We talk about all of them, but homosexuality is on the front page of the paper every day. We didn’t make homosexuality the centerpiece. You all did that. And you know how you did that—by your preachers and so-called Christians fornicating, divorcing and remarrying and committing adultery.

You understand: you’ve handed the keys to the church to the fags. You’ve got no moral authority left in this nation. There are over 600,000 so-called houses of worship in this country and over 2,000,000 so-called clergy in this country. None of them outside of Westboro Baptist Church are doing right. They don’t have orderly walking members. They don’t have faithful preachers. They fill up the pews and the pulpits with proud sinners and you gloss over it all with the lie that “God loves everybody.” Once you did that, it was time—that is, if I may put this a little crudely—to bend over and take your sodomizing. That is why the homosexuals who are about 3% of the population have a choke hold on all of us.

"How do you love your neighbors? You love your enemy by telling him the truth and you love your enemy by imprecatory prayers."—Margie Phelps

JW: But Jesus did talk about loving your enemies. You know these Bible verses. How do you respond to that?

MP: How do you love your enemies? How do you love your neighbors? You love your enemy by telling him the truth and you love your enemy by imprecatory prayers. Why don’t we do what Jesus did? Why don’t we do what the apostles did, and what the prophets did, what the good kings did, and what David did? That’s how you love your enemy. That’s called the royal law by James, and it is one of the two greatest commandments on which all the rest of the commandments hang, the other one being to love the Lord thy God with all thy mind, body, heart and soul. In other words, with every fiber of your being. Now how do you do the royal law? How do you fulfill it?

JW: You speak what you believe to be the truth.

MP: It’s more than that. To fulfill the royal law, you do it in three ways: First, you obey the commandments of God. Don’t sleep with your neighbor’s wife, for instance. The second way you do it is you urge your neighbor himself to obey the commandments of God lest he bring the wrath of God down on himself and his household. And third, when he doesn’t, you rebuke him openly. If you don’t rebuke your neighbor, you hate him. In Ezekiel 33, it says when the sword comes—and all the espousers say that is when you have been dragged into a war—when that times comes and your soldiers are dying, you are the watchman. If you don’t open your mouth and tell them to stop sinning, their blood is on your hands.

JW: So you are speaking truth to power?

MP: Don’t rephrase what I said. That’s a glib catchphrase. We rebuke them for their sin.

JW: Jesus spoke truth to power. He fought the priests. He fought the Romans, and they crucified Him for it. But here is my question: wouldn’t it be better to be out in front of the White House preaching your message?

MP: We have picketed the White House many times, and we have picketed every president. Now, they crucified Christ because He preached about hell and said He was the messiah and said that those false, phony religionists were going to hell. Now, that is His message to them. That is why they crucified Him. Not because He “preached the truth to power.” They crucified Him for precisely the same message that we deliver.

JW: It is very clear why they crucified Jesus. He claimed to be God. That was Pilate’s question to Jesus: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Once Christ said it, He was gone. It was treason.

MP: And Jesus told them just like we are telling the Jews today—that is, “Don’t tell me that you are the son of Abraham and that therefore makes you the chosen people and you get in heaven because of that. He can make sons of Abraham out of these stones. Obey. Obey.” That was Christ’s message. Obey.

Now as for the government, of course God holds the heart of the king in His hand, turning it whithersoever He will like a water course. He puts these men and women in power, and they are His servants like Nebuchadnezzar with his servants, and they do what He has planned for them to do. The proper way to present truth to any person in government power is precisely the way you present it to average citizens. Tell them the truth. Nothing more, nothing less. And render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. It is proper to obey the law. It is also proper to go into the gate in whatsoever fashion the Lord opens the door of utterance for you and say the word.

We don’t want power. We don’t want to dethrone anybody. We don’t put them up and take them down. God does that. Do you know what Jeremiah’s message was to Judah that caused them to almost kill him? His message was that God is sending you into captivity to Nebuchadnezzar—you either surrender or you die. And, of course, they called him a traitor, but that is precisely what happened. If they didn’t surrender, they died.

JW: You exercise your First Amendment rights. You are heavily criticized for your expressive activities, but you also come under physical attack. For example, a large group of people surrounded six members of your church in West Virginia. They tried to set your hair on fire. Somebody spat tobacco on your face. Others are not respecting your rights. How do you feel about that?

MP: Are you kidding me? This nation, every man and woman in it, has no respect for God’s law. Why would they have any respect for man’s law? Why do you think they are trying to declare war on the federal court system? Because the Fourth Circuit dared to follow the organic law of this nation. Let me tell you something: this nation is full of thugs—lawless thugs and brutes, and the reason they are that way is because they have been taught to be that way by every parent, teacher, preacher and leader of this land. Not only does that stuff go on with our church members, it goes on with scores of police officers standing 5 feet away laughing at it. But though a thousand fall at my side, and ten thousand at my right hand, they are not going to harm us. Now that is how that is going to go. And let me tell you where this is headed. The U.S. Supreme Court is going to rule in our favor. This nation is going to rise up in such a rage, such a mutinous rage, it will become necessary for us to be expelled from this land. And we will be. And when that happens, it’s all over for this country. You need to study carefully Jeremiah, chapters 50 and 51, and Revelation, chapter 18, for this nation’s destruction is imminent. We are not kidding when we say that. We told you 20 years ago that if you didn’t stop this sinning, this place was going to turn into a foul land. Now that has happened, and this land holds every foul creature. That is the first phase of the fall of Babylon, which is doomed America. The next phase is coming soon, and it is going to come immediately after we are expelled from this land. Any thought that this thing is going to turn around at this hour is unscriptural.

"These funerals are not private events. From the minute that soldier dies, every aspect of his life, death, burial and funeral become public fodder." —Margie Phelps

JW: There is no hope for America? No hope at all?

MP: Precisely. Precisely.

JW: What about the Bible story of Jonah and Nineveh? There was hope there.

MP: That’s right, and what was that example? They repented.

JW: That is what I am getting to.

MP: You don’t think that is on the horizon in this God-forsaken country, do you? Are you kidding me? They would make a mockery. They want to put you in jail for saying it’s a sin. The thought of repenting is not on the landscape.

JW: I believe your case is a very important Supreme Court case. What do you think the Court’s decision is going to hinge on legally? Usually, the Supreme Court takes a case to overrule or refine. What do you think?

MP: First of all, I will give you a legal analysis, but before I do that, it is important to say conventional wisdom doesn’t mean squat. They took the case because it is time. They took the case because it is interesting. They took the case because this little humble church, this little flock of slaughter, has captured the attention by the grace and power of God of the whole world. That is why they took the case. It is not in our hands or your hands or anybody else’s. It is not in their hands how this case is going to turn out. This case is a means to an end by the Lord our God.

As far as the legal analysis goes, the Supreme Court has never ruled on the privacy of a funeral, and so I could see where they would have some interest in doing that. But when they set their hands to do that, first you have to keep in mind you are going to be bound by the facts and not what anybody else says about this case. The fact is that we were over a thousand feet away if you go as the crow flies, almost 1500 driving distance. We were out of sight, out of sound, and we had left before the funeral started. So what they are going to have to do is take hundreds of years of law about privacy, captive audiences, reasonable time/place/manner restrictions as a whole to rule against us. There is no way around that. They would have to uproot. They have never found a privacy interest that far away.

JW: What about Frisby v. Schultz, the residential picketing case, where the Court limited expressive activities? Do you think that they could extend that kind of reasoning to funerals?

MP: Well, let’s say they did. Directly in front of is the standard. Focused picketing is the question. We never engage in focused picketing anywhere. Never. That is not our modus operandi. Furthermore—and one of those Fourth Circuit judges asked me about Frisby—Frisby gives residents a zone, a very narrow zone, of privacy if you are using it as a residence. If you hold a union meeting in it, you don’t get protection. These funerals are not private events.

From the minute that soldier dies, every aspect of his life, death, burial and funeral become public fodder. Politicians use those events to politic. The media uses those events to tell sensational sappy stories. The military uses those events to hold patriotic pep rallies. The clergy use those events to mug for the cameras because they love to be greeted in the marketplace. The families use those events to have a big worshipfest—a public worshipfest of that dead body.

We watched that go on at these soldiers’ funerals for two years before we started picketing at them. We realized that they have turned those funerals into an international public platform. Everybody uses that funeral to engage in expressive activity, and it is all one side of the dialogue. What’s being said is, “He is a hero, and he is in hell, and God Bless America.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Tell me about what a blessing it is to have your young son cut off in his prime lying there in a closed coffin in little tiny pieces. Have you people taken leave of your senses? So we joined that public debate. The Frisby case does not apply.

JW: How does it feel to be so disliked and hated?

MP: Well, I love that question. And if you knew the words of Christ like a professing Christian should, you would know what a great token of salvation it is, because as the Scripture says, “Marvel not when the world shall hate you,” and they hated me. Do you think the servant is greater than the master? I love that they hate it. I can hardly believe it.

I remember the early years of this picketing ministry. We could see right away people weren’t going to have any message about obeying God or sin. But I never dreamed we would talk about these various passages and how they apply. And we are all acutely aware of the fact that we are polarizing. My brother Jonathan said once in an interview that every person in the world is going to see these words. It’s good. They are. The whole world. I mean, we get chunks of media. Every time you guys do something to us in this country—like our case now going up to the Supreme Court—big chunks of the rush-to-the-world media comes flocking. We have had almost every nation send a big camera crew here to spend a week or two with us. This is reaching the whole world, and without exception, they hate what we are saying. BBC had a special that still airs two years later. We get emails letting us know it is airing out there somewhere in the world.

We are called the most hated family in America. Thank you, Lord. What evidence of our salvation.