A Peek Inside The Westboro Baptist Church The Topeka, Kan., church claims only about 100 members — almost all from the family of a man named Fred Phelps. "They're college educated. They're well-spoken. The daughter herself argued before the United States Supreme Court," says a reporter who profiled them. "They're not what I expected."
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A Peek Inside The Westboro Baptist Church

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A Peek Inside The Westboro Baptist Church

A Peek Inside The Westboro Baptist Church

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BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church spokeswoman says the members want God to punish Americans for tolerating homosexuality. They picket funerals to make people angry, she says. They want people to reject God and be condemned to hell.

SHIRLEY PHELPS: Our job is laid out. We are supposed to blind their eyes, stop up their ears and harden their hearts so that they cannot see, hear or understand and be converted and receive salvation.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Westboro's extreme theology sets it apart from any other church, says Mark Potok at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

MARK POTOK: Westboro Baptist Church is an organization that essentially has no friends whatsoever on the far right, the far left or anyplace in between.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The Phelpses and their church are isolated in more ways than one. Few news organizations have profiled them. One journalist who did is Bill Sherman, the religion writer for the Tulsa World. He visited them in their compound in an upscale neighborhood of Topeka. He found them polite, normal people - a model of success.

BILL SHERMAN: They're college educated. They're well-spoken. The daughter herself argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. So they're not what I expected.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Four of Fred Phelps' 13 children are estranged from the family. Most of the rest live in Topeka and practice law.

SHERMAN: They have a very well-respected law firm and people in town said, well, you know, we don't like them, but if we want to win a case, we'll go to them.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Shirley Phelps-Roper says their booming employment and family law practice pays the bills for their travels across the country to publicly shout their anti-gay message. They travel in vans to keep down the costs, which can add up to $200,000 a year. Do they have secret contributors? Phelps-Roper is adamant they do not.

PHELPS: We all work, and we all pay our own way. We don't ask for anything from anyone, and we don't take anything from anyone.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The protests are in themselves a source of some income, according to Mark Potok. Over the years the Phelpses have filed lawsuits against communities that try to stop them from demonstrating.

POTOK: And as a general matter they have won. They know their First Amendment rights very well, and they've been very good at defending them.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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