Son Turns on Church That Pickets Soldiers' Funerals

"Now he quit preaching and went to meddling," said Phelps-Roper. "The scripture says for children to be spanked. But with respect to spouses, wives -- you know I am married -- it says, 'Husbands, love your wives and treat them like you treat your own body.' That is the standard and that is what we live by.

"[Nate] lied when he said my dad beat on my mom," said Phelps-Roper. "He lied."

In the Phelps household, Nate Phelps said, children were also terrorized by their father's graphic depiction of the hell they faced if they did not behave.

"It was a very literal translation of a lake of fire," said Nate Phelps. "The worm that eats on you that never dies, the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was a literal and agonizing concept of hell."

Fed up with his father's rage, Nate Phelps left home the very moment he legally could.

"I left the night I turned 18, literally at midnight," Phelps said. "I knew I was going to do it when I turned 15 or so, and I bought a car when I was 17, hid it, no one knew it was mine, packed my stuff up and at 11:30 on the night of my 18th birthday I backed it into the driveway and loaded it up and went inside, waited for the clock to hit midnight and then I left."

Bittersweet Homecoming

Last weekend, Nate Phelps -- now a husband and father -- returned to Topeka, the featured speaker at a rally in support of gay rights.

His homecoming was bittersweet. Phelps is among four of the 13 Phelps children who've severed ties with their family.

"There is a lot of anger from them for what I have done," Phelps said. "They call me a rebel and a traitor and you can't take that in without feeling some feelings. It's a mixed bag."

"He grew up living and learning the world of God," said Phelps-Roper. "And the Scripture says that when you walk away, there is no hope for you."

Westboro's remaining followers -- numbering fewer than a hundred -- are nearly all members of the extended Phelps family. Its leaders live at a walled compound in Topeka, flanked by upside-down American flags. It's less a church than a family group, dominated by one man's rage.

"There are about 80 percent [of church members] who are related by blood or marriage," said Phelps-Roper, "kind of like 100 percent of those who were on the ark when God sent the other 16 billion straight to hell."

In the church's eyes, every calamity -- 9/11, the Iraq war, the West Virginia mining disaster -- is evidence of God's wrath. These days it's the Gulf oil spill.

"Oh my gosh, it's an awesome God-smack," Phelps-Roper said of the spill.

Whether the church's protests at funerals are free speech or intentional cruelty will be argued before the Supreme Court this fall.

"They have a right to say what they want to say, they have a right to say it publicly," said Nate Phelps. "Where I would draw the line, and I hope this is what the Supreme Court does, is to say they don't have an absolute right to when and where. ... They are strangers standing outside that church as I am burying my son. Who are you to tell me how I was, or what I may or may not have done to cause this? That is evil, that is hateful."

So, after years on the sidelines, Phelps is going public against the Westboro church, and what it stands for. It's his way of atoning for the evil, he believes, that his own troubled family has inflicted.

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