'America's Doomed': Free Speech or Unlawful Hate Mongering?

A jury says fringe church's hateful protests not protected by First Amendment.

Nov. 2, 2007— -- Are there limits to free speech? Is some speech so hateful that it should be punished? This week a jury said yes, saying a fringe church must pay nearly $11 million in damages for disturbing a funeral.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., often picket the funerals of soldiers. As family members arrive to grieve the loss of their loved one, the picketers confront them with screaming, cruel songs and signs saying things like "America Is Doomed."

Shirley Phelps-Roper and her brother Tim Phelps carry on the campaign their father Fred, founding pastor of the church, began decades ago.

"Repent, dummies! The wrath of God is upon you. It's abiding upon you," said Shirley Phelps-Roper at one protest. "America's doomed. Your destruction is upon you."

They do this, they say, because those who die are receiving punishment from God.

"[Punishment] for sin, unrepentant sins, idolatry, fornication," said Tim Phelps. "That's the religion of this nation: My God is me. I serve myself."

"20/20 interviewed Fred Phelps 14 years ago, when his picketing had become the talk of Topeka. Phelps focused mostly on homosexuality and denied that his protests were "cruel harrassment."

"Desperate times require desperate measures," he said. And it was clear that he delighted in his cause, telling "20/20" that "this is so much fun" while faxing messages of hate, and laughing about those who die from AIDS.

'We All Deserve Death in Hell'

Today, nine of Fred Phelps' 13 children carry on his work -- almost all of the 70 or so members of the church are members of his family. Shirley and Tim helped move the Phelps' message to the Internet. They also created music videos, for songs like "God Hates the World and All Her People." A documentary on the Phelps, called "Fall from Grace," will air on Showtime next month.

The clan now travels the country, picketing disasters everywhere and saying that all catastrophes are caused by the sins of a nation that supports homosexuals.

"Thank God for 9/11," said Shirley. "Thank him, because we all deserve death in hell, and he has mercifully spared us and it's time for repentance."

Tim and Shirley say they get their message "from the Bible" and believe that biblical scholars who say otherwise "are frauds." "They tell you what you want to hear because you pay them," according to Shirley.

Often their hateful rants bring angry reactions from passersby. Police are called to the scene to prevent violence, but they are not always successful. Still, Shirley and Tim don't consider their message to be "hateful."

"Hateful message? It's a kind message. It's the only kindness of this hour," she said. "And we do it on our own time and we do it from a pure heart and kindness."

"You don't get to define the word 'hate,'" said Tim. "When we start talking about matters of Scripture, the Bible defines what's hate."

Funeral Protests Lead to Court

Shirley said that parents mourning their children who died in war "did not do their duty to their child."

"Those people that are sitting around there with their crocodile tears … the Lord, God entrusted them with that tiny baby," she said. "They raised the child. There's only two ways to raise your child. You either raise them by the standards of God or you do, in fact, raise them for the devil."

The First Amendment gives Americans the right to speak even hateful things, but because of demonstrations like these, 40 states have now placed restrictions on picketing funerals.

"You're whacking away at that First Amendment," said Shirley. "You don't get to put people on trial in doomed America for their sincerely held religious beliefs."

Shirley feels confident in her knowledge of the law, as she is a practicing attorney. In fact, 10 of her siblings are lawyers. But this week they lost.

A Baltimore jury said the Westboro Baptist Church was too vulgar and offensive to be covered by the First Amendment. The church must pay nearly $11 million to Albert Snyder, who brought a suit after the Phelps clan picketed the funeral of his 20-year-old son Matthew, who died while serving in Iraq.

"I hope this is enough to deter them from doing this to other families," said Snyder. "All I kept thinking about was my son Matt and all the other parents who went through it -- this will set a precedence."

The Phelps don't have $11 million, and they say they will appeal the decision.

"They do all these radical things, pass laws, arrest us, sue, and all it does is create a new platform," said Tim.

'Never Too Young'

The extra publicity is the main reason why Shirley didn't mind when she was arrested after her son trampled a flag at a serviceman's funeral in Nebraska. The Phelpses routinely bring their children to protests.

"They just want to kill us pretty much," said 8-year-old Noah Phelps-Roper, one of Shirley's 11 children. "Because we're preaching the message. … Because they don't like our message."

Aren't they a little young for all this preaching? "No, they're not young," said Shirley. "They're never too young to hear words."

Ten-year-old Jonah Phelps-Roper says his favorite flag is one that says "Fags Doom Nations." "I like that sign," he said.

When asked what the word "fag" means, Jonah replied "A fag is someone … who … I can't really explain."

"A fag is someone who does not obey the word of God," said Noah.

The Phelpses are proud that their children have learned their lessons well, and that they all, regardless of lawsuits, will keep the message alive.

"We'll keep preaching," said Tim. "We don't give a rat's backside of what anyone does in this nation. We'll keep preaching."

"We have to preach to the whole world -- that's our job," said Shirley.

And, they say, their children will continue to do the preaching for them.