Pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church congregation -- also known as the "God Hates Fags" picketers -- have no place in a polite society. But we don't live in a polite society. We live in this one. And in this one we are guaranteed the freedom of speech.
If you're for free speech, which I am, you're proclaiming you can be offended and be reasonably okay with it. Freedom of speech isn't just saying what you want to say, it's also letting other people say heinous and indefensible things and accepting the government's inaction on the issue.
The Bill of Rights deals with the relationship you have between you and your government. It doesn't mean that I can't tell you to shut up. It also doesn't mean that people like "n-word" aficionado Dr. Laura Schlessinger is "losing her First Amendment rights" by being boycotted. It means she is so distasteful that corporations don't want to endorse her speech by giving her advertising money. She still has the right to say it -- it's the wide broadcast and corporate sponsorship she mistakenly thinks is her constitutional right. It's the reason she quit her job as a syndicated radio host to go to Sirius XM...to be a satellite radio host. Makes sense.
The Westboro Baptist Church came on the national scene by picketing Matthew Shepard's funeral. Shepard was a 21-year-old student in Wyoming, who in 1998 was tortured and beaten to death because he was gay. The church showed up to point out the victim was a "sinner." At the time it reminded me of the bloodthirsty demonstrators outside prisons during an execution, but this wasn't a convict -- Shepard's only "crime" was being a gay kid in small town.
After that, capitalizing on a tragedy to make a religious point became a theme for Pastor Phelps and his small church.
Soon they started picketing soldiers' funerals, claiming our men and women in uniform die because our country tolerates homosexuality. The church sees this as their mission: tell us we're going to hell. And to thwart any labeling by the media -- the description they provide their website reads, "Site of anti-homosexual propagandist Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas."
What they do is hideous. But lots of hideous things are done in the name of religion: sheltering child rapists; advocating violence against women; not helping the poor. And becoming wealthy by preaching the gospel of an insolvent prophet is...well, not exactly practicing what He preached.
Every time I hear blowhards claim this is a Christian nation -- I just point out the poverty rate is 14.3 percent. Christian nation? No, we're not.
Anyway, in 2007 Louis Theroux of the BBC made the documentary, The Most Hated Family in America. He followed the Phelps congregation, which is mostly his own large family. It's a fascinating look inside this icon of intolerance, daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper explained that what they scream on the street corner is done out of love. Informing people they're going to hell for their sins and for tolerating others' sins is...loving. That's how they see what they do. They think they're spreading the word and all of us are over-sensitive and in denial about our impending perpetuity in hell.
It's almost street theater the way our sacred cows are made into creamed chipped beef casserole right in front of us. Anything we as a country deem sacrosanct and beyond controversy -- there's Westboro Baptist protest signs reading "Thank God for AIDS."
Which is why last week the group showed up at Elizabeth Edwards' funeral. Why? I'll paraphrase: It was because she didn't repent enough.
There are plenty who think they are against political correctness until faced with a Fred Phelps God Hates Parade at the gravesite of a marine who died from an IED. Then there's a PC pause.
Yes, it angers us. What they do is disgusting. Which is why the Supreme Court is going to decide a case brought against the church by a family of a soldier who died in combat.
But popular speech doesn't need protection. Nor does popular religious belief. Seeing the Westboro Baptist Church protesting is (at the very, very least) a sign of our freedom.