Fringe Westboro church to resume anti-gay protests

CHICAGO Wed Mar 2, 2011 5:40pm EST

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The fringe Westboro Baptist Church, which has infuriated many with anti-gay protests at funerals of U.S. soldiers, said on Wednesday it plans to continue demonstrating after winning a Supreme Court ruling.

The Topeka, Kansas-based fundamentalist splinter group, which has no affiliation with the mainstream Baptist church, has some 70 members and most are relatives of pastor Fred Phelps Sr.

One of Phelps' daughters, Margie, presented the church's arguments to the Supreme Court that it had a right to free speech. The high court agreed in an 8-1 vote, voiding a multimillion-dollar damage award granted to the father of a Marine killed in Iraq.

"We are trying to warn you to flee the wrath of God, flee the wrath of destruction. What would be more kind than that?" Margie Phelps said after the ruling, according to ABC News. "We have not slowed down and we will not."

"I do very much appreciate that I get to be the mouth of God in this matter," she said.

Since 1998 when the church picketed outside the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was beaten to death in Wyoming, clutches of church members have shown up around the United States at hundreds of funerals for soldiers, gays, celebrities and at disaster sites. They shout chants and hoist signs, with messages reading "God Hates F***," "God Hates You," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "You're Going to Hell."

The church members espouse a belief that God hates homosexuality and is punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuals. Members are nonviolent, and follow local laws.

"God is punishing this nation with a grievous, smiting blow, killing our children, sending them home dead, to help you connect the dots," Shirley Roper-Phelps, one of Phelps' daughters, was quoted in the New York Times as saying.

"This is a nation that has forgotten God and leads a filthy manner of life," she said outside a funeral.

Free speech advocates that included 21 news organizations and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which filed a legal brief in the case, argued that though the church members' protests are nearly universally viewed as repugnant, they are protected by the Constitution.

Some states have enacted or considered laws to block the church's protests at funerals, requiring demonstrations to be a certain distance away, and confining the protests to periods before or after the ceremony.

The Arizona legislature hastily passed a law to keep church members 300 feet away from funerals for victims of January's Tucson shooting that gravely wounded U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

A group of thousands of motorcycle riders, many of them military veterans, formed the Patriot Guard Riders in 2005 to create a human shield between mourners and the church protesters. The riders sometimes drown out the shouts of the church members with their engines.

Three years ago, the church set fire to a Koran and videotaped the stunt, but drew little notice.

(Editing by Greg McCune)

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