In March 2009, Libby Phelps Alvarez left the Westboro Baptist Church, saying goodbye to a life of picketing the funerals of dead soldiers and holding up controversial anti-gay signs.
Nearly four years later, the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, Sr., founder and pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, gave an emotional interview to NBC's "Today Show," in which she described the controlling life of hatred and intolerance that she's left behind.
"They think that they are the only ones who are going to heaven and if you don't go to that church you're going to hell,” Alvarez told "Today," explaining that the congregation was driven primarily by its homophobic views.
Phelps Alvarez says she recalls a particular moment when she began to feel she could no longer support the group's efforts.
“There was a point when we started praying for people to die,” Phelps Alvarez said. “I didn't actually do that but I was around when they did it.”
She's talked about that behavior before. Soon after leaving the congregation, Phelps Alvarez gave a radio interview in which she recalled being forced to "pray for people to die."
Phelps Alvarez isn't the only one to escape the tightly-knit, secretive church, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as a cult and hate group. Among former members is Nate Phelps, son of Pastor Fred Phelps Sr., who has spoken openly against some of Westboro's most high-profile demonstrations. In December, he publicly condemned its announced plans to picket the funerals of victims in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
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Honoring America's Veterans Act
In August, President Barack Obama <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/06/honoring-americas-veterans-act-obama_n_1748454.html">signed the Honoring America's Veterans Act</a>, dealing an indirect blow to Westboro Baptist Church by declaring that protests at military funerals -- a favorite tool of the congregation -- must be at least 300 feet away. The law also says such demonstrations are prohibited two hours before or after a service.
White House Petition
In late December, petitioners flooded the White House "We the People" website, calling for Westboro to be officially recognized as a hate group and to have the church's tax-exempt status revoked. One petition became the site's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/26/white-house-petition-westboro_n_2365799.html">most popular ever</a>, surging past 270,000 signatures. In total, the petitions against the congregation <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/27/us-usa-guns-westboro-idUSBRE8BQ0IE20121227">drew close to 500,000 signatures</a>.
California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/18/westboro-jerry-brown_n_1893849.html">signed a bill</a> in January echoing the federal law signed earlier by President Barack Obama. It established a 300-foot buffer zone around military funerals, where demonstrations are prohibited.
Westboro protesters <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/29/westboro-baptist-church_n_1717142.html">were outnumbered</a> by a zombie-themed counter-protest in July, when members of the church sought to organize picketing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in DuPont, Wash. About 300 counter-protesters were there. Westboro demonstrators numbered eight.
In July, thousands of people in red shirts <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/22/westboro-baptist-church_n_1693548.html?1343597714">formed a "human wall"</a> around a Columbia, Mo., church to block a small Westboro group from protesting the funeral of 21-year-old Army Specialist Sterling Wyatt. Wyatt was killed in Afghanistan earlier in July.
In July, a large group of Texas A&M students <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/06/texas-am-students_n_1653002.html">formed a "maroon wall"</a> to block Westboro protesters from getting near the funeral service of Lt. Col. Roy Tisdale, an alumnus of the school killed on a U.S. military base in June.
In December, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/17/westboro-baptist-church-hacked-anonymous-protest-newtown-shooting-victims-funerals_n_2315070.html">hacktivist group Anonymous targeted Westboro Baptist Church</a> after the congregation announced plans to picket the funerals of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Hackers from the group later posted personal information about members of the church and hacked the Twitter accounts of some of Westboro's most vocal leaders. Anonymous also announced that it had successfully taken down the church website for some period of time.
Nine-Year-Old Josef Miles
HuffPost Good News <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/15/westboro-baptist-church_n_1518901.html">reported in May</a>: <blockquote>Nine-year-old Josef Miles and his mother, Patty Akrouche, were walking around the Washburn University campus in Topeka, Kan., on Saturday when they saw a group of Westboro Baptist Church protesters armed with signs. The church is infamous for using pickets with phrases like "God hates fags" and "Thank God for dead soldiers." After reading some of the signs on display, Akrouche said that Miles asked her if he could create one of his own. Using a small sketch pad, he wrote out his message in pencil and held it out while he stood across from the picket line. "GOD HATES NO ONE," he wrote.</blockquote> For pictures of Miles' demonstration, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/15/westboro-baptist-church_n_1518901.html?utm_hp_ref=westboro-baptist-church">click over to HuffPost Good News</a>.
In December, a group of motorcyclists responded to news that Westboro members were planning to picket the funeral of Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Hochsprung by <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/19/westboro-baptist-church-protest-newtown-victim-funeral-_n_2331880.html">assembling outside the church</a> to block them from getting near the service. Westboro members reportedly backed down after the bikers established a large presence.
Firefighters And Police Officers
TheBravest, a website dedicated to all things Fire Department of New York, <a href="http://www.thebravest.com/standthewall.html">sent out a call to action</a> in late December, urging firefighters and police officers to travel to Newtown to counter potential moves by Westboro to disrupt funeral services of Sandy Hook victims.
In October, a spirited group of counter-protesters <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/15/westboro-baptist-church-video_n_1967661.html">attempted to beat back Westboro followers</a>, who were demonstrating against a service to honor 29-year-old Staff Sgt. Donna Johnson, a gay soldier killed in a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan. One counter-protester took the "beat back" literally, bull-rushing a Westboro congregant.
A group called Angel Action <a href="https://www.facebook.com/events/398024316947100/">organized a counter-Westboro demonstration</a> gave attendees 10-foot sets of angel wings that would shield funeral demonstrations from the displays of the church.