Westboro Baptist Church

Perhaps the most offensive church in America, whose members are famous for picketing funerals and promoting a god of hate

1955 - present

Disclaimer: This page contains explicit and offensive language, which some readers may find disturbing

The Westboro Baptist Church was founded in 1955 by Fred Phelps, a prominent civil rights lawyer. This church was nothing out of the ordinary until the 1990s when they discovered that a local park was a discreet meet-up for the local homosexual community and that there had been reports that the community was also sexually assaulting passersby in the same area. In response, the church held daily protests in the park, where they asserted their belief that homosexuality was an abomination. Since then, they constantly traveled around the country to picket and expanded their message to include a condemnation of Jews, America, soldiers, and several other groups of people.

The church became the center of national attention in 2006 when they picketed the funeral of U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder with signs displaying messages such as "God Hates You," "Fag Troops," and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." His father responded by launching a lawsuit against the church in which he was awarded over $10 million in damages. The Supreme Court, however, ruled in favor of the church. As a result, not only was the church cleared of any wrongdoing, but the Snyder family was also forced to pay thousands of dollars to cover the  church's court costs.

Since then, many younger generation members have left the church and have written books about their experiences. In 2014, the founder himself was excommunicated and later died, coinciding with a power struggle within the church that caused many to wonder if it would survive. However, after adopting a new leadership structure, the church still seems to be going strong and continues the pickets for which they are most famous.

Westboro Baptist Church members picketing

Religion: Christianity

Denomination: Baptist

Founder: Fred Phelps

Founded: 1955

Size: 70 (2016)

Location: Topeka, Kansas, United States

Other info:

At the age of five, Megan Phelps-Roper began protesting homosexuality and other alleged vices alongside fellow members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Founded by her grandfather and consisting almost entirely of her extended family, the tiny group would gain worldwide notoriety for its pickets at military funerals and celebrations of death and tragedy. As Phelps-Roper grew up, she saw that church members were close companions and accomplished debaters, applying the logic of predestination and the language of the King James Bible to everyday life with aplomb―which, as the church’s Twitter spokeswoman, she learned to do with great skill. Soon, however, dialogue on Twitter caused her to begin doubting the church’s leaders and message: If humans were sinful and fallible, how could the church itself be so confident about its beliefs? As she digitally jousted with critics, she started to wonder if sometimes they had a point―and then she began exchanging messages with a man who would help change her life.

A gripping memoir of escaping extremism and falling in love, Unfollow relates Phelps-Roper’s moral awakening, her departure from the church, and how she exchanged the absolutes she grew up with for new forms of warmth and community. Rich with suspense and thoughtful reflection, Phelps-Roper’s life story exposes the dangers of black-and-white thinking and the need for true humility in a time of angry polarization.

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Since no organized religion will claim affiliation with the WBC, it's perhaps more accurate to think of them as a cult. Lauren Drain was thrust into that cult at the age of 15, and then spat back out again seven years later. BANISHED is the first look inside the organization, as well as a fascinating story of adaptation and perseverance.

Lauren spent her early years enjoying a normal life with her family in Florida. But when her formerly liberal and secular father set out to produce a documentary about the WBC, his detached interest gradually evolved into fascination, and he moved the entire family to Kansas to join the church and live on their compound. Over the next seven years, Lauren fully assimilated their extreme beliefs, and became a member of the church and an active and vocal picketer. But as she matured and began to challenge some of the church's tenets, she was unceremoniously cast out from the church and permanently cut off from her family and from everyone else she knew and loved. BANISHED is the story of Lauren's fight to find herself amidst dramatic changes in a world of extremists and a life in exile.

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It wasn’t until Libby Phelps was an adult, a twenty-five year old, that she escaped the Westboro Baptist Church. She is the granddaughter of its founder, Fred Phelps, and when she left, the church and its values were all she’d known. She didn’t tell her family she was leaving. It happened in just a few minutes; she ran into her house, grabbed a bag, and fled. No goodbyes.

The church makes headlines in news across the country. You’ve driven past its picketers or seen them on TV. It has seventy members and ninety percent of them are part of Libby’s family. They picket concerts, football games, other churches, and, most notoriously, the funerals of servicemen and victims of hate crimes. For its members, to question its rules is to risk going to hell—where worms eat at your body and fire shoots out of your eyeballs.

In Girl on a Wire, Libby is candid about her experience and what’s happened since her escape. On Anderson Cooper Live, she was confronted by the mother of a soldier whose funeral had been picketed, and had to respond. Despite it all, she cares for her family. Her grandfather’s sermons were fear mongering, but she loves him. This unusual memoir presents a rare, inside look into a notorious cult, and is an astonishing story of strength, bravery, and determination.

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