On Wednesday's "Anderson Live," a former member of Westboro Baptist Church was confronted by the family of a soldier whose funeral was picketed by the controversial group.
Libby Phelps Alvarez, whose grandfather, Fred Phelps Sr., founded the group known for its anti-gay protests, left the church in March 2009. During an emotional interview with host Anderson Cooper, Phelps Alvarez explained what it was like to protest at the funerals of fallen soldiers and other prominent figures.
"I thought I was doing good. I honestly did," she said. "I thought the way to help my neighbor was to tell them that their sins were taking them to hell."
Cooper then introduced Phelps Alvarez to the parents of Sterling Wyatt, a 21-year-old Army Specialist who was killed in Afghanistan last year. Westboro protesters came to picket Wyatt's funeral in July, but were overshadowed by counter-protesters who formed a "human wall" around the church.
Wyatt's mother, Sherry, praised Phelps Alvarez for her decision to leave Westboro.
"We want to commend you for being brave enough to leave that congregation," she said.
Wyatt then detailed how she felt when she heard the group would be protesting her son's funeral.
"My first thing was, in my heart, was how could they," she said. "My son died. Our son died to ensure freedom of assembly, to ensure freedom of speech, to ensure freedom for those who are white, black, gay, straight, rich, poor."
Phelps Alvarez then gave a tearful apology to the Wyatts for the actions of her past congregation.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I thought I was doing the right thing, but I look back now and see that I was hurting people."
Later in the interview, Cooper asked Wyatt if she had anything to say to members of the group who continue to demonstrate at funerals like her son's.
"I would want to say, you are not helping us," she said. "You are not saving our souls from hell. You're not saving us from anything. All that we get from your actions is just a show of absolute hate."
What did help the Wyatt family, she said, was the outpouring of support from strangers who protected her son's memorial from Westboro's efforts.
"That is community," she said. "That is church."
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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.