By Topeka Capital-Journal, March 22
To say that a death in Topeka rarely generates the national, and even international, attention that is accompanying the passing of Fred W. Phelps Sr. would be a gross understatement.
But the focus on Topeka now is understandable because, in the minds of many who live beyond our state’s borders, Topeka, Fred Phelps and the church he led for so long, Westboro Baptist, became almost synonymous over the years, much to the distraught of most Topekans.
Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church became known far and wide for preaching and protesting against homosexuals. Church members traveled the country to picket the funerals of known gay people, military personnel who had died in service to their country and others. Soldiers were dying, according to the logic of church members, because God hated America for its tolerance of homosexuals. Anyone who didn’t realize that and fall in line with the teaching of Westboro Baptist Church was doomed to hell.
Phelps and his message became Topeka’s cross to bear, and the community did that as well as could be expected.
To be sure, there are others in Topeka and across the country who agree with what Phelps was preaching, although no one copied his outlandish and hateful methods.
Wherever Westboro Baptist members and their picket signs appeared, people asked if something could be done to stop the protest. But despite what people thought of the church’s message or the way it was being delivered, Phelps and his followers had a right to advocate it. Courts at every level, right up to the U.S. Supreme Court, agreed church members were expressing their First Amendment right to free speech. Time and distance restrictions could be established for protests at funerals and burials, but the protests couldn’t be prohibited.
Whether the church will lose some of its enthusiasm for such activities in Phelps’ absence is unknown. The church was losing congregants as family members, who are the bulk of the congregation, and others broke away even while the patriarch was still alive.
In an act of cowardice, family members decided there would be no memorial or funeral for Phelps, at least none open to the public. They may have made a mistake. It’s not difficult to imagine Phelps would have enjoyed a crowd of his detractors showing up to see him off.
Regardless, an era has ended with Phelps’ death, and Topekans have reason to hope others come to know the community for some of its better qualities.
Topeka is more than one man and his message. It always has been.