Most Kansans are familiar with the name Fred Phelps. Most Kansans wish Fred Phelps wasn’t a Kansan. Kansas senate candidates this year promised to “crack down on Fred Phelps’s protests.” I hate to tell them, but they can’t crack down on Phelps. Maybe they could restrict protests to a certain distance from a cemetery to create a larger buffer for mourners, but they can’t stop Phelps from spewing his ridiculous opinions because, like it or not, he is protected by the First Amendment.
On more than one occasion Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka have made the national news and prompted friends to ask me (a Kansan) about him. I calmly explain that he’s a minister with unusual and repulsive opinions who frequently protests military funerals and anything else that will get him attention. I tell people they can find out more about Fred Phelps at his website. And then I tell people my honest opinion: Fred Phelps is a jerk.
Recently a Florida church gained a lot of controversial attention for planning to burn copies of the Quran. Phelps and his daughter were mad and were interviewed in the newspaper. They weren’t mad because the other church planned to burn the Quran or because of the potential international backlash of doing so. They were mad because they had already burned the Quran at their church and nobody cared.
Here’s the tricky part of the whole issue. If anyone tries to pass a law to restrict Phelps’s ability to protest, I’d have to vote against it. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop Phelps from preaching his filth without limiting everyone’s freedom of speech. But fortunately the freedom of speech that protects Phelps also protects me when I say that in my opinion Fred Phelps is an un-Christian lunatic doo-doo head. The only think anyone can do to stop Fred Phelps is to stop giving him media attention and take away his forum. Just because he holds up signs and yells a lot doesn’t mean you have to put him on CNN or put his photo on the front page; that’s what he wants! He’s like a stray dog; if you keep feeding him, he won’t go away.
Perhaps the best response (in my opinion) to the Westboro Baptist protesters took place in McAlester, Oklahoma this weekend. According to the Tulsa World, 1000 counter-protesters showed up and drowned out the handful of Westboro representatives with revved motorcycles and chants of “U.S.A!” Afterwards, the Westboro protesters found two of the tires on their minivan slashed and a town unwilling to help repair them. Smells like Karma.
The reality is that Fred Phelps has a tiny little church of misguided people who really don’t have a large span of influence unless the media gives them a forum. Without the media’s help, they’re just a pathetic little group of people waving pieces of poster board. Let’s stop making them more than they are.