Outside The Court, Phelps Clan Draws A Crowd

10/06/2010 09:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Jena Lowe
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) The marble plaza outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday (Oct. 6) provided the biggest stage yet for the Rev. Fred Phelps and his message that U.S. deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are God's punishment for America's lax stance on homosexuality.

Jaws dropped, eyes widened and onlookers moaned with distaste as the extended Phelps clan hoisted their trademark picket signs reading "God Hates Fags" and "You're Going to Hell."

Inside, the justices heard arguments on whether Phelps' free speech rights extended to picketing outside the 2006 funeral of a Marine who died in Iraq. Outside, the concerns were a bit more pedestrian.

"We've been here for three hours," one of Phelps' children said. "I'm getting bored."

Onlookers and counter-protestors prodded the Phelps family about their message. A young man asked Jonathon Phelps if the word "fag"--which he had quoted on his sign as a verse directly from God--is actually in the Bible.

"I can reference you to Amos 4:11," Phelps said. "It says fag." In fact, that verse references Sodom and Gomorrah, but not homosexuality.

The protest adds to a long list of demonstrations the family and Westboro Baptist Church members have conducted outside funerals, church conventions and even Lady Gaga concerts. One thing is constant, however: the Phelps family knows how to get attention, and anger.

"Can you picture these people standing this long outside of our church?" said Phelps' smiling youngest daughter, Abigail. "No. So who cares why the came? The point is they came."

But for every Phelps family member with a sign, there was a counter-protester to match.

George Washington University student Sam Garrett, wearing only a pair of black briefs, drew laughs as he walked, in 50-degree weather, from the back of the waiting line to the front, and placed himself directly between the Phelps family's "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Bloody Obama" signs.

"Fred Phelps," Garrett's sign read, "wishes he were hot like me."

Other counter-protesters directed signs against the Phelps reading "Love conquers all" and "If you're going to heaven, hell sounds nice."

Twelve-year-old Zion Bethel and his sister, 14-year-old Kezia, said they came from Alabama with their parents and another family member to support the Phelps clan. Zion's shirt read "God Hates Gays" across the front; Kezia's read "God Hates Whores."

According to Kezia, their church, New Life Gospel Production Ministries, has been conducting similar protests since 1996, longer than Zion's been alive.

"Most Christians in the Bible are martyred," Zion said eloquently. "That's why all of these people are persecuting Phelps."

The Bethel family, having read of the Supreme Court protest on the Westboro website, decided to show their support in person.

"Most people in our church," Kezia said, "chicken out."