By Steve Weinstein
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By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
A gold Chevy Trailblazer bearing two "Support Our Troops" magnets rolls past flag-waving bikers and roaring motorcycles. Then it motors past men and women carrying signs thanking God for dead American soldiers.
The SUV parks in the lot across from St. Mary's Catholic Church in Independence. As the Samoan family exits the vehicle, Shirley Phelps-Roper says, "Oh, I've got a customer here," then snaps into a loud song to the tune of "The Army Goes Rolling Along."
First to fight/For the fags/Now they're coming home in bags/And the army goes marching to hell.
Her voice is worthy of a church choir and carries across the lot.
The grieving family glares at Phelps-Roper with looks of hurt and disgust.
"Now, see, they'll never be able to take those words away," she brags.
Fred Phelps' daughter is right. Her words stick to the memory like bubblegum to a shoe. She picks up the song in midverse.
Proud of all of your sin/No more battles you will win/And the army goes marching to hell.
Now it's IEDs/The army's on its knees/Count off the body parts all gone Two! Three! and where e'er they go/The dying soldiers show/The army keeps marching to hell.
Army National Guard Sgt. Michael Fuga was killed in action in Afghanistan on September 9. But his memorial will be anything but peaceful, thanks to the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. To them, Fuga is just another soldier burning in hell. His is just another funeral in need of gospel preaching, Another chance to mock the lawmakers who have tried to shut them up.
Shirley Phelps-Roper spends some family time with her sister Rebekah Phelps-Davis and her son Jonah Phelps-Roper.
photo: Jay Soldner
Today, nine members of the Westboro Baptist Church have made the trip from Topeka to picket Fuga's funeral. Shirley Phelps-Roper brought her oldest daughters, Megan and Rebekah; her mother, Marge; her sister Margie; and her brothers Fred Jr. and Jonathan and their wives.
There to confront them are the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of bikers acting as a human shield, showing up at military funerals to block the Phelpses' signs with American flags and drown out their chants and songs with revving motorcycles.
Phelps-Roper spots a rider heading her way.
"Watch this," she says.
The biker tries to smoke her out by backing up his cycle and kicking out exhaust fumes.
But just as the engine blasts with a vroom, Phelps-Roper darts up the sidewalk, leaving the leather-clad man alone.
"I am so in charge of these guys," she says.
Phelps-Roper wears a purple "GodHatesFags.com" hooded sweatshirt and holds three signs "America Is Doomed," "God Hates Fag Enablers" and "God Hates the USA" in one hand. An American flag stuffed in her khaki pants drags on the concrete.
See Phelps-Roper in action at a different funeral that day here.
For an hour, the members of the Phelps family bounce from sidewalk to sidewalk, frustrating the bikers. Jonathan Phelps walks on a pair of American flags in the street. Megan and Rebekah taunt the bikers. Fred Jr. holds a "Fags Doom Nations" sign. Marge's sign reads "God Is Your Enemy."
Conspicuously absent is Fred himself.
Over the past year and a half, the Phelps family has garnered a new wave of media attention by picketing the funerals of U.S. soldiers. Lawmakers have played into their hands by rushing to ban the tactic.
At the same time, the 49-year-old third daughter of Fred and Marge Phelps has become the most visible member of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church, eclipsing her father in news stories and television appearances. She serves as the church's unofficial spokeswoman.
Her father gained infamy about 15 years ago when he began picketing gay-pride celebrations with his "God Hates Fags" signs. Phelps later drew nationwide attention for picketing high-profile funerals (Fred Rogers, Matthew Shepard and Coretta Scott King). Eventually, it seemed as if the media wised up and denied Phelps the attention he so obviously craved.
Marge Phelps, wife of Fred and mother of Shirley.
photo: Jay Soldner
"It is very uncharacteristic for him to not be front and center because he gets so much out of that," says Fred's estranged son, Nate Phelps, who left Westboro in 1980. "The fact that he's been absent from the public says a lot to me."