Hate-Filled Religious Fanatics Find a Home in Kansas Corrections
by Alex Friedmann
Hate is a strong word. Many prison employees and DOC officials are contemptuous of or indifferent to the prisoners in their custody. Detention facility staff are sometimes negligent, retaliatory and even abusive,(1) but they seldom display a fanatical hatred toward prisoners. There is, however, one group whose deep burning hatred and extremism are evidently well suited for employment in the criminal justice field.
For those who aren't familiar with Rev. Fred W. Phelps, Sr., the 77-year-old reverend leads the fire-and-brimstone Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.(2) Phelps and his religious clan -- consisting of approximately 80 followers,(3) including numerous members of the Phelps extended family -- have gained national attention through their high-profile protests at funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq.(4)
The Westboro Baptist Church believes that the United States is being punished due to a tolerance of homosexuality;(5) they have various other beliefs, all of which center around such slogans as "God hates fags" and "God hates America."(6) The Phelps clan has also demonstrated at funeral services for gay murder victims (7) and for the 12 West Virginia mine workers killed in an accident earlier this year,(8) and planned to protest at the funerals of five Amish children murdered in Pennsylvania in October 2006.(9)
As one writer put it, the church members "also rejoice in the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami that devastated Asia two years ago, and AIDS. They believe God hates Santa, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, soldiers, me, and if I had to guess, they probably believe that God hates you."(10) Apparently Phelps and his followers think they are the only people whom God doesn't hate.
The Westboro Baptist Church protests include inflammatory picket signs, name-calling, desecration of the American flag, and an extra helping of Phelps' hate-filled philosophy. Laws have been enacted across the nation to limit such funeral demonstrations,(11) including federal legislation signed into law on May 29, 2006,(12) but such measures risk being struck down by courts on free speech grounds.(13)
Interestingly, many of the Phelps are attorneys. Patriarch Fred Phelps, Sr., who had a lengthy law career, has been disbarred; eleven of his 13 children are lawyers.(14) More interestingly, six of the Phelps family are or were previously employed by various corrections-related agencies in Kansas.
Margie Phelps, an attorney, currently works for the Kansas Dept. of Corrections as the agency's Director of Re-entry Planning; she attends the group's funeral protests outside of work hours.(15) Her brother, Fred Phelps, Jr., a former parole officer, is a staff attorney with the Kansas DOC.(16) Both Margie and Fred, Jr. were previously temporarily suspended from practicing law following disciplinary action.(17) Margie was arrested during one of the group's protests in May 2004.(18)
Timothy Phelps is presently employed as a spokesman for the Shawnee County Dept. of Corrections.(19) Lee Ann Phelps and Elizabeth Phelps both formerly held positions with the Shawnee County Sheriff's Department,(20) while Abigail Phelps, another active participant in the group's funeral protests, works in the staff development office for Kansas' Juvenile Justice Authority.(21)
Despite their hate-filled, anti-American ranting outside the workplace, the Phelps' personal beliefs apparently do not affect their on-the-job performance. Jack Rickerson, director of the state's human resources department, stated that Margie Phelps' activities outside of work "violated no state policy."(22) Kansas DOC Secretary Roger Werholtz was quoted as saying, "I don't agree with her views," but remarked that Margie Phelps was "a good employee."(23)
Kansas state Senator Jean Schodorf called the situation an embarrassment, noting that members of the Phelps clan employed in corrections "... kind of flaunt that they work for the state and can't be terminated" due to civil service protections.(24)
Under the belief that practicing law and acting as an officer of the court are inherently inconsistent with the hate-mongering practiced by members of the Phelps clan, Prison Legal News associate editor Alex Friedmann filed an ethics complaint against Shirley L. Phelps-Roper in February 2006.(25) Phelps-Roper, an attorney with the family's law firm, Phelps Chartered, actively participates in the church?s funeral protests.(26) The state Office of the Disciplinary Administrator, however, refused to file the complaint, stating First Amendment concerns would "preclude a successful investigation and prosecution of the Phelps ...."(27) A request for reconsideration of the Disciplinary Administrator?s decision was denied.
Apparently fanatical hate, inflammatory name-calling and intolerance are acceptable practices for attorneys -- and prison and jail employees -- in the state of Kansas.
1. See every issue of Prison Legal News published since May 1990 for examples of such negligence, retaliation and abuse (www.prisonlegalnews.org).
2. Westboro Baptist Church bio of Fred Phelps, Sr. (www.godhatesfags.com/main/phelpsbio.html).
3. Des Moines Register, November 6, 2006.
4. See: http://www.adl.org/special_reports/wbc/default.asp. The Phelps' protests have been extensively covered in the national media.
5. See, e.g., Flint Journal, July 12, 2006: The Phelps believe that "military deaths are God's retribution for the country's failure to condemn homosexuality."
6. See the church's websites, www.godhatesfags.com and www.godhatesamerica.com.
7. Most notably the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard.
8. See: http://www.godhatesfags.com/photos/2006/20060115_buckhannon-wv.html for pictures of the protest, which include signs stating, "Thank God for Dead Miners."
9. Lancaster New Era, Oct. 4, 2006. The Phelps agreed not to demonstrate at the Amish funerals after radio talk show host Mike Gallagher offered the group one hour of airtime if they canceled the protest.
10. The Snapper, Oct. 12, 2006 (www.thesnapper.com/index.php?page=articles&article_id=1922351).
11. Laws banning funeral protests have been enacted in about a dozen states including Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Indiana, Kentucky and Vermont. Missourian, Nov. 26, 2006 (http://columbiamissourian.com/news/story.php?ID=23035); also see AP article dated Sept 26, 2006 (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15021014).
12. See: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2006-05/30/content_604007.htm. The bill was titled "Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act" (Public Law No: 109-228), and is codified at 38 U.S.C. 2413. Penalties for violating the law are set forth at 18 U.S.C. 1387 (up to a $100,000 fine and up to one year in prison).
13. See, e.g., AP article dated Sept 26, 2006 (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15021014), in which a Kentucky law banning protests within 300 feet of military funerals was suspended by U.S. District Court Judge Karen Caldwell on free speech grounds.
14. See: http://www.nndb.com/people/908/000025833.
15. The Wichita Eagle, July 15, 2005 ("Margie Phelps: Moonlighting for Hate"); phone conversation with the Kansas DOC, Oct. 2006.
16. The Wichita Eagle, April 2, 2006 and July 22, 2005; phone conversation with the Kansas DOC, Oct. 2006.
17. The Wichita Eagle, April 2, 2006.
18. The Topeka Capital-Journal, May 17, 2004. Margie Phelps and her son, Jacob, were each charged with one misdemeanor count of disobeying a lawful police order. The disposition of their arrests is unknown.
19. The Wichita Eagle, July 15, 2005 ("Margie Phelps: Moonlighting for Hate"); phone conversation with Tim Phelps, Oct. 2006.
20. Confirmed during phone conversation with Tim Phelps, Oct. 2006; also see "Addicted to Hate," filed as an exhibit to a lawsuit in Shawnee Co. (KS) District Court that was subsequently sealed. (http://www.blank.org/addict/orig.addict.html).
21. The Wichita Eagle, April 2, 2006; confirmed by calling the Kansas Juvenile Justice Authority, Oct. 2006.
22. The Wichita Eagle, July 15, 2005 ("Margie Phelps: Moonlighting for Hate").
24. The Wichita Eagle, April 2, 2006.
25. Complaint filed on Feb. 6, 2006.
26. See: The Pitch, Nov. 2, 2006 (http://www.pitch.com/Issues/2006-11-02/news/feature_full.html) for an extensive article on Shirley Phelps-Roper.
27. Letter from Kansas Disciplinary Administrator Stanton A. Hazlett dated Feb. 17, 2006.
28. Request for reconsideration submitted to Kansas Disciplinary Administrator Stanton A. Hazlett on Feb. 27, 2006, and denied by same.