Politics & Government

Westboro's attorney: In court, not just another protester

Albert Snyder of York, Pa., left, steps aside  after making a statement in front of the Supreme Court. At right is Kansas Attorney Gen. Stephen Six.
Albert Snyder of York, Pa., left, steps aside after making a statement in front of the Supreme Court. At right is Kansas Attorney Gen. Stephen Six. Carolyn Kaster / AP

WASHINGTON — Attorney Margie J. Phelps held her fire and brimstone Wednesday until she was safely outside the Supreme Court chambers.

Then she let loose.

"Your destruction is imminent," Phelps told more than 100 journalists assembled on the court steps. "And when it comes, don't stand there and say the servants of God didn't warn you."

Phelps had just finished an hour-long oral argument in the free speech case called Snyder v. Westboro Baptist Church. She is the daughter of church founder, Fred Phelps, as well as the Topeka, Kan., church's main legal advocate.

Inside the Supreme Court, stiff questioning from the justices hadn't flustered Phelps. The gray-haired Washburn University graduate, in her first appearance before the high court, commanded both the facts and the law. More than one close court observer confided that she out-performed her opponent, attorney Sean E. Summers.

Only once or twice during the oral argument did Phelps hint at the fiery nature of her ideology, as when she told justices that "our answer is that you have got to stop sinning if you want this trauma to stop."

Outside the court, during the traditional post-argument news conference, Phelps let her voice grow ever more steely. Over time, her volume rose as she spoke beneath gray skies.

"God is cursing America," Phelps assured reporters. "He's opening up his armory. Every death is in God's hands, and he's just getting warmed up."

Her fellow church members nodded their heads, occasionally offering their own side commentary. A reporter asked one question, and another church member looked at him scornfully.

Many Supreme Court cases draw crowds, but few in quite the same way as Snyder v. Westboro Baptist Church. As early as Tuesday, members of the public were lined up outside the court with hopes of securing a seat for the 10 a.m. Wednesday start of oral arguments.

The case questions whether the First Amendment protects Westboro's anti-gay protests outside a 2006 funeral of a Marine who died in Iraq.

Westboro members maintain the death of Marine Matthew Snyder, as well as other U.S. war deaths, reflect God's unhappiness with U.S. tolerance toward homosexuality.

"We pray for more dead kids, because God hasn't got your attention yet," Jonathan Phelps, the 50-year-old brother of Margie Phelps, said Wednesday.

Jonathan Phelps also is a Topeka attorney, specializing in criminal defense. He was one of about 26 Westboro church members to drive or fly to Washington this week, arriving for a series of demonstrations that culminated in the Wednesday appearance at the Supreme Court.

Like his sister, Jonathan Phelps speaks lucidly. He called himself a "good lawyer." He waved a sign as he spoke that declared "Thank God for IEDs," which are the roadside bombs that have killed and grievously wounded hundreds of Americans. He was stepping on a gay pride flag.

Jonathan's sister-in-law Betty Phelps was close by. She's 57, and seemed friendly, if a little shy. She was holding signs depicting cartoon-type figures engaging in sodomy. She was protesting, she said, "the acceptance and toleration of fags." She was stepping on the Marine Corps flag.

"We feel horrible in Kansas that the church is in our state," Kansas Attorney General Steve Six said.

Six had attended the oral argument, having earlier helped rally 48 states to sign a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Snyder family. Once Margie J. Phelps and her allies had left, Six joined Albert Snyder, Snyder's attorney and members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars before the cameras.

"All we wanted to do," Snyder said softly, "was bury my son with dignity and respect."


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