God Hates Tucson: LIFE photographs inside Westboro Baptist Church


Ben Cosgrove of LIFE Magazine tells Boing Boing,

This morning LIFE published a gallery of exclusive, never-seen photographs by Anthony Karen (the same photographer who did our KKK gallery last year) taken at the Westboro Baptist compound in Topeka, Kansas, in June 2008, and other places where the church likes to hang out and picket grieving families, etc.

The gallery is a disturbing, thought-provoking, intimate look inside what might well be the most despised community in America right now, along with Anthony's insights into what makes these people tick.

Here is the full photo gallery at LIFE.com.

The church has been in the news this week for their characteristically offensive plans to protest at the funerals of shooting victims in Tucson. The government of Arizona took quick action to block this, by passing an expedited law that made protesting within 300 feet of a funeral or burial service illegal. NY Mag, CNN, ABC affiliate in AZ, Christian Science Monitor.

This person has some interesting theories on the church's founder.



  1. I disagree with EVERYTHING these people espouse. . .

    They are obviously completely in the wrong; but telling zealots to calm down and get a clue usually falls on deaf ears.

    And I’m glad they’ll be banned from protesting at the funerals: but the concept of limiting free speech always gets my attention. It’s the cornerstone of our foundation of freedom that makes the US a worthy state, even if the speech is anathema: Shit makes the flowers grow. (so to speak. . .)

    Just wish these jerks would stay at home and mind their own. . .

    1. I think ignoring these types of people just makes them yell louder.

      Let’s just hope they aren’t crazy enough to resort to violence.

      1. I think that is what I’m afraid of, taking matters into their own hands with all the pent up hate they are exhibiting. What happened to the church teaching love one another?

  2. I don’t agree that this is “thought provoking”. This is essentially a cult and they do not reflect a commonly held belief system. Pastors like Jerry Falwell might be “thought provoking” because a substantial number of people actually agree with or follow him.
    I think these guys are a bit like the “burn a Koran day” guy Terry Jones; wackos who have no real amount of followers, yet somehow manage to get massive amounts of media coverage, which is essentially the only thing that keeps them going. Note that once we started ignoring TJ he went back to being an isolated kook.

  3. I really love the combination of the “die” poster and the two kids at the left who look like they’re giving each other a HJ.

    I’m sick, but at least I’m not those bigots, or their unfortunately reared children…

  4. Why should anyone care what these people think or say?
    Ignore them and they’ll go away.

    Exactly! The Life gallery was interesting for revealing what a finely tune media machine this hate group is. Rows and rows of signs hanging in wait, weapons of mass anger.

    Seeing the kids makes me wonder what the dating scene will look like for them when they grow up, just image that first date conversation:

    Hottie: So, do you go to church?
    Kid: Yes, I’m a proud member of the Westboro Baptist Church
    Hottie: Check Please!

    1. I get your point, but I think you just insulted gay people everywhere in one fell swoop.

      And anyone who routinely puts words in Gawd’s mouth is selling something.

  5. @2 : How is a grieving father supposed to “just ignore” people that openly proclaim that it’s a good thing his son died ? At the son’s funeral, no less ?

    I mean, having a thick skin is one thing, but this is absolutely outrageous.

    1. Good question. The media could do us all a big favor by ignoring these folks. They may be able to survive financially without the Westboro Baptist Church to boost their viewership.

      The “human shield” that folks create at funerals is reasonable. It’s best to ask all the shielders to face the funeral instead of the WBC.

      I’m not sure where I stand on the law that Arizona passed unanimously the other day to create a 300 foot buffer zone around funerals, but it seems like a decent thing to do in light of the utter lack of decency that these protesters exhibit. We already have a “free speech zone” on campus for the religious wackos to hang out in.

      One of my friends in Tucson suggested getting the world’s largest mariachi band to show up at the funeral.

  6. @nixiebunny, ignoring is rather difficult if you are at your daughter’s funeral and some idiots come and shout that it was your daughter’s own fault that she died.

  7. Why do we give this family of crazies the time of day?

    I was at one of their protests, once. It’s really see these kids spewing this shit when they so clearly are of the age where they shoudl be out jumping their bikes with friends.

  8. It really is impossible to fathom such actions;holding placards that reads your love one deserves death he/she gets. Really you got be unimaginably callous and insensitive to hold such despicable placards at funeral. I don’t know how they sleep at night.

  9. I get the reasoning behind “just ignore ’em” but like others have said that’s not exactly an easy task for the victims’ families. Also, ignoring the WBC clan is tantamount to ignoring an ongoing and public act of child abuse. What are the chances that any of those kids will grow up to be healthy well-adjusted human beings?

  10. Did anyone read the link that says “this person has some thoughts on the church’s founder”? Very interesting proposition — that he believes none of it; he’s just trying to goad people into violating his first amendment rights and then sue them for it. It’s almost easier to swallow than the idea that someone could be so crass and horrible.

    1. It’s the only thing that (suddenly) makes sense about this group. Knowing that they don’t really believe what they’re yelling about makes them even more pathetic. Might as well be holding blank signs at this point.

      Spread that link around, people. It’s a good theory.

    2. Thank you. This is what the group is about, Fred Phelps is a lawyer. Look it up on Wikipedia. The group is begging people to come up and punch them so they can sue, that’s it, that’s all. Stop giving them attention and they’ll go away.

      They’re BEGGING for your attention. Them picketing soldier funerals wasn’t exactly news anymore so they wait for a disaster and picket anyone who died in it.

      Please spread the truth about them, they’ll shrivel and go away.

  11. A free speech solution: No protesting a funrel within 3 miles of the service site. That way WBC can still spew their garbage and the family can have peace. (Plus since 3 miles is rather far away from the target. WBC will go back to the hole they can out of since no one will be paying them any attention.)

  12. There’s a pretty interesting BBC documentary about WBC called “The Most Hated Family in America”

    In general, the adults are pretty repulsive, but it’s hard not to read a deep sadness in the children.

    1. I seem to recall a service you can sign for where they notify you when Fred Phelps dies and where the funeral will be located.

  13. It’s unclear how this isn’t already a criminal act covered by any number of harassment, nuisance, and incitement laws. And since “the right to be let alone is the beginning of all freedom,” how can anyone’s mind possibly leap to concede this as a free speech?

    That’s not rhetorical, it’s a challenge. Go.

  14. The answer is not simply “just ignore them.” The answer is for the *media* to ignore them. Stop feeding the trolls (LIFE, I’m looking at you — this photo collection offers little insight that hasn’t already been revealed). The Westboro crew are like dogshit on your shoe; you’re disgusted by it, but wipe it off quickly and go about your day, without telling the whole world about it. I hate hate hate this group’s actions passionately, but by no longer engaging in and spreading of the WTF-RAGE that they’re looking for, I no longer help their cause.

    And, @Brainspore, I get what you say about the kids, but there are all kinds of morons raising children. Unfortunately, unless they’re being abused as defined by child protection agencies, there isn’t much one can do except hope they develop critical thinking skills as they get older.

  15. On Jan. 12th, Canadian media reported that the WBD had canceled plans to protest at the funeral of nine-year-old Christina Green (a victim of the recent Arizona shooting).

    A deal was struck with a Toronto radio station and another in Phoenix to ensure that no Westboro cranks would show up at the service, in exchange for airtime. The Toronto radio host involved said of Shirley Phelps Roper: “She spewed her religious rhetoric and she agreed not to go to the funeral. I just couldn’t stomach those parents out there, with those idiots across the street screaming at them.”

    Read the whole story here.

  16. The link on the theory that they are just trying to generate lawsuits is interesting, but to be plausible I’d like to see it backed up by statistics and actual lawsuit info. A quick search didn’t find much in the way of them getting damages in such alleged suits.

  17. Of course Westboro Church’s antics are outrageous, unfathomable, and sickening to most of us. That is exactly the response that Fred Phelps wants from us. When normal people are outraged and sickened they tend to make mistakes that people like the WBC’ers can exploit in a court of law. That’s why every member of the Phelps clan is an attorney. They usually don’t show up when they threaten to protest and they only stay long enough for a photo op and to give normal people an opportunity to slander them or make physical contact. Please ignore these lunatics.

  18. It bugs me to no end that Phelps’ followers call themselves Christians without the slightest hint of irony. Following Jesus’ teachings; WBC’s definitely doing it wrong.

  19. Hold on! Hold on!

    You mean these guys aren’t just some performance art group? You know, saying something extreme to provoke thoughts leading to the opposite conclusion? ‘Cause when I see things like “Fags deserve death” and “God hates America” my reaction is to think, hey, that’s not true!

    Well then, if they are really protesters and not performers, I declare them an epic fail.

  20. I read the Florida journalists theory. He is absolutely right. It is the only logical idea, and people need to spread the word and get wise, as people have been monetizing on both lawsuits and religion for a while now. Even according to Phelps himself, WBC has held about “40 pickets a week for the bast 10 years”. They protest more than there are days in the year. The US law system needs a major re-working (you don’t keep all of your things for your whole life. you update, throw away, change, and eventually, start from the ground up and re-decorate), there needs to be a separation of God and mainstream media (this is promoting the Judeo-Christian ideal that, if you haven’t noticed, is hinting at it’s ability to start the new Dark Ages), and a Peoples Protection Force of some sort needs to be implemented to pursue on-going, foot-work, active investigations of Police (A police force for the police. The police has no check or balance as it should). I’m tired of this insanity.

  21. Note that Phelps himself is a former civil rights attorney. He knows how the system works.

    When I was a student at the University of Georgia, sometime in the early ’90s, a couple came to Athens, set up on campus, and did some hate-stumping like this, telling us we were all going to Hell for being fornicators, etc. As you can imagine, some students stood around and heckled them and we all had a big laugh.

    Later I heard that all these folks did was travel around making outrageous statements, always with a third person in hiding, shooting video of the whole thing. They’d provoke until someone attacked them, then sue. Despicable leeches.

    @Chanfan: The suits most likely settle before going to court.

    1. I’ve seen the same thing at OSU — a group of rabid bible-thumpers (NOT to be confused with Christians) telling all the bikini clad co-ed sunbathers that they were sluts and going to hell. How many of these groups are organized lawsuit machines and how many of them truly believe their own rhetoric without ulterior motive, I don’t know.

  22. The band “I can lick any SB in the House” has a good song called “Fk Fred Phelps.” If you are irritated by anything you have seen here, watch one of the videos and I promise you will feel better. It proves that these people can be fought with ROCK:


    It goes without saying that these are not safe for work or anywhere else.

  23. This god they claim to represent seems, petty, vile, hateful, prejudice ,scornful, basically like a modern day Zeus wannabe meh, thinks they deserve each other

    1. I’ve pondered this myself. The WBC kids attend public schools, surely the signs they carry in these protests violate school rules about abusive hate speech. The BONG HITS 4 JESUS ruling states that kids can be suspended or expelled from school for doing exactly what these kids are doing in the protests.

      I guess expelling these kids from schools would punish the WBC parents, but would be more harmful to the kids themselves who are only experiencing normal society during school hours. Also since this is a family of lawyers it would be an expensive legal battle.

  24. I have seen quite a few hilarious pictures where people stand next to them with posters saying “God Hates______” absolutely mocking them. Just can’t ‘memba them, anybody remember and have links?

  25. Based on the journalist’s theory that the WBC doesn’t really believe in what they are frothing at the mouth about (and even if this is actually not true), I’m thinking that the most effective counter protest from now on is to respond with, “Oh, you guys…you don’t MEAN that…”

  26. Is there a way of finding records on what lawsuits the WBC has filed and/or won?

    Seriously, would that be public information?

  27. Louis Theroux did an episode on this family called “The most Hated Family in America” It’s a really good insight into these people. Plus Louis Theroux’s stuff is always pretty interesting. I’m pretty sure he’s been mentioned on BB before.

    1. Loved the Theroux documentary. It seems like the whole ‘church’ is a single family, dominated by one crazy zealot. Really sad to watch the younger kids there getting so warped.

  28. What’s even stranger about Phelps is that he did a lot of good for black civil rights when he was an attorney. What happened? It’s almost like a Jekyll and Hyde type of thing. He’s also a Democrat who ran for office on several occasions. It’s so odd. I hate seeing those clowns on the news and hearing about their protests.

  29. I’m O.K. with protecting these people’s First Amendment rights…

    …as long as it becomes legal to savagely beat anyone who protests at a funeral.

  30. They are not a church or a cult, they are an organized criminal group. Scammers, plain and simple.

    They need to be charged and prosecuted for extortion and racketeering. Note that extortion does not require actual physical violence but can be infliction of pain and suffering or the threat of violence or pain and suffering. They do this routinely when they announce that they are going to protest a funeral. What protects them now is that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, they can claim to be acting for the purpose of religious self-expression.

    What needs to be done is to find evidence that their “church” exists and their protests are conducted specifically for profit and not out of religious belief. This might be in an e-mail admitting their strategy or turning one of their members into a witness for the state. With that in hand, they could be charged with extortion and racketeering, and then then tax fraud (for falsely claiming they are a church).

    First step would be to tap their phones and monitor their e-mail and then if there is iron-clad cause, to serve a warrant and confiscate all their records and communications. Along the way, try to turn one or more of their members.

    This will be extremely difficult and would require a very motivated Attorney General or District Attorney.

  31. If they’re simply a money-making scheme, p’raps we should simply, gently, toss dollar bills at them…

  32. Here’s a first amendment question for you armchair lawyers out there. Could the westboro’s baptist church’s protests fall under obscenity and not qualify for 1st Amendment Protection?

    For example, someone would be arrested if they displayed a sign showing a woman’s vagina on a city street. In that instance free speech is superseded by obscenity.

    Now “obscenity” is usually imagined as applying only to porn. But it really refers to anything that vastly violates moral norms. Isn’t protesting outside a 9 year old child’s funeral more obscene than a photo of genitals?

    1. Isn’t protesting outside a 9 year old child’s funeral more obscene than a photo of genitals?

      In sane, clever, happy world, yes.

      Unfortunately we are living in crazy, stupid, sad world – where Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia goes on record as opposing equal rights for women and gays, and nobody bats an eye.

    2. But another interpretation takes us to the first amendment protecting political speech so theoretically political speach could be obscene while commercial speech can be regulated for decency.

      I have seen people charged with ludeness for less than what is on their currently used signage.

  33. I’ve lived within 1-4hrs from these people my whole life. They are an isolated, brainwashed cult. I used to argue with one of the sons on IRC. I forget if he was a teacher or grad student at KU, but he was a racist troll in the chat rooms.

    I did get to yell at them and tell them to fuck off at my graduation from K-State. Some security guy said something like, “Hey now, we don’t need that.”

    I looked at him quizzically, “No one invited these people here. Fuck them.”

    It is a testament to our belief in our freedoms that we continue to allow these people to do these things.

  34. There are a lot of things Arizona has done in the last couple of years that make me feel embarrassed to live here – but banning any sort of protest within 300 feet of a funeral isn’t one of them.

    I don’t see it as interfering with Amendment I rights. We don’t allow political ads near voting places, either.

    Frankly, I’d rather see Phelps and his entire crew launched into the sun, but SB 1101 will do for now.

  35. If the WBC can harass funerals, I don’t see why NAMBLA can’t stand outside schools asking for blowjobs. It’s just free speech, right?

    1. Because being an asshole isn’t illegal, but proposition of a minor is.

      I am torn on limits to protests, even something so crass and sacrilegious. We do have some limits to speech, which is reasonable if they are well defined and specific, making their abuse to quiet legit protest impossible. 300yrd seems reasonable to me. You can protest with out being on the grave.

      You can’t yell ‘fire’ in a theater (though you can still yell “FUCK THE HELMET LAWS! SING IT FAT BOY!” in some of them).

      1. Because being an asshole isn’t illegal, but proposition of a minor is.

        Because mentioning sex to minors will RUIN THEIR LIVES FOREVER, but yelling at them that their dead siblings are burning in hell will have absolutely no effect on them at all.

        1. They’re both horrible. I would contend NAMBLA would be more predatory and higher on the douchebag scale. Of course you need to look at your life if someone at point someone is saying the WBC isn’t as bad a you.

          I don’t know if the ‘damages’ are worse than one another, but one is legal and the other is not.

          1. one is legal and the other is not.

            But we’re discussing ethics: what should be legal/illegal, not what is legal/illegal.

          2. I see. I would say they are both unethical.

            If NAMBLA was out there with signs that say “I Heart Boys”, etc. – that would be a direct comparison with WBC. The same sort of behavior. Despicable behavior, but I guess we have to protect it.

            If NABMLA crosses then line from slogans to solicitation, it becomes different. You are now trying to harm someone – you are actively preying. That shouldn’t be protected and should/is illegal.

            To lighten the mood, anyone see the NAMBLA South Park episode? :o)

          3. If NAMBLA was out there with signs that say “I Heart Boys”, etc. – that would be a direct comparison with WBC.

            You might want to review the WBC’s signs. A closer equivalent would be “I’m going to sodomize your toddler.”

  36. I know this is totally crass, tasteless, and everything else…

    But reading all the comments I kept thinking of someones signature on a different forum board I visit:

    Cheytac .408
    Reaching out and touching someone, one mile at a time…

    (I don’t condone violence or anything like that, but damn that makes me chuckle every time I read it.)

  37. I stopped reading at “Phelps, a former civil rights attorney, has 13 children — 11 of them lawyers…”

    There was a soap box preacher that would show up on my college campus once a year for about a week. He would scream at everyone telling them that they were all sinners and that they were going to hell. Going as far as to scream “Slut” into girls faces. I asked one of my professors, “Does this guy really think that he’s doing any good. Is all of his hateful rhetoric going to get people to go to church.” My professor laughed and said, “He doesn’t care about that. He has a circuit of schools that he goes to yelling at everyone until he pisses someone off enough to get punched. Then he sues to school for not protecting his freedom of speech. They settle and he moves on and does it again.” These people are just scaling up the concept.

  38. I grew up in Kansas, my sister performed the Nutcracker (ballet = teh gay, ugaiz) in Topeka my whole childhood (these idiot’s backyard). Every year, every single year, they would be there with their neon signs. I not once saw Fred Phelps, himself. Just his brood (his brood too scared to tell Fred to fsck off).

    Years 3-5 were frightening (“Mom who are those people?” “They’re cowards, dear.”). Years 6-7 were disappointing (“Mom, humans can really suck, huh?” “Yes, dear.”). 8 was just sad (“Hey… You guys it’s cold out here. Why don’t you put your signs down and come inside. Go to the bathroom, get some tea…. Oh, it’s a gay bathroom? Gay tea? Oh. Okay.”

  39. I agree they should not be fed. They’d probably retreat and end up another doomed, sad separatist colony (and separatism is fine with me — at least they have the decency to accept that the world both isn’t for them and is bigger than them).

    But I kinda think that a load of guys should dress in bright pink versions of the Westboro t-shirts with leather shorts. I honestly think genuine ridicule can disarm most twats like these ones.

  40. I thought there were limits on free speech when it came to speech that would “incite violence”. I can’t think of more incendiary speech than to celebrate and taunt the grieving people at a funeral. Furthermore, the use of the word “Fags” seems like they’re committing a hate crime at least.
    I have to agree that these people are not like trolls who will go away if people ignore them. They perceive to be on a mission from God so their zealotry is what’s driving them, not the high of knowing they’re getting a reaction from others.

    One thing I noticed is that wherever they go, police provides protection for them. They’ve been safely escorted away numerous times from angry crowds.

    Why are we spending tax money on giving them protection detail? Why not let free speech stand free and alone? Let them face the crowd. If the mob tears them apart, then let that fulfill the martyrdom they want to badly.

  41. re:”One thing I noticed is that wherever they go, police provides protection for them. They’ve been safely escorted away numerous times from angry crowds.

    Why are we spending tax money on giving them protection detail? ”

    IIRC – if they don’t then they will sue the city for violating their rights. Crazy cult full of people with law degrees. *shudder*

  42. Every police department in the country should get together and agree on the following policy, and make it publicly known that this will be the policy from now on:

    1. The WBC is free to protest wherever they like, even at funerals.

    2. However, if they want special police protection for their protests, they’ll have to pay for it.

    3. If they don’t pay for special police protection for their protests, there won’t be a cop within a mile of the protest – the protestors are on their own. The police will, of course, investigate and prosecute any crime committed against the protestors; but the cops won’t lift a finger to prevent such a crime.

    4. If the WBC protestors do choose to pay for special protection, the police department will donate all of this money to a gay rights group.

  43. Wow!
    And to think that these people consider themselves christians.

    Maybe they should try reading the bible.

  44. The WBC is visiting American University today around 5:00 to protest our Fag-infested school. While it’ll be interesting to see how the student body reacts (#1 most politically active in the nation), I’m terrified that a couple students will go overboard and the WBC will win. The plan is a peaceful counter protest, with maybe a couple signs and to turn our backs to them. It’s funny though, that they’re so concerned about the gays on campus when our male to female ratio is pushing 30%-70.

  45. I think it would be absolutely epic if, through the use of BoingBoing/Reddit/Facebook etc, a mass grouping was assembled when Fred Phelps passes away.

    Not out of hate, but as a way to say goodbye from all the groups he’s aggravated. Gays, Military Members, Blacks, Whites, etc should group together at his funeral with signs like “RIP Fred Phelps – Sincerely, Fags”. All peaceful things.

    Basically just a giant message from all of these groups saying “You’re such sad, ignorant robots, your words have no meaning”.

  46. I’m inclined to feel like forcing children to hold those hateful signs is some sort of child abuse. I hate that they can even call themselves a church.

    It’s unfortunate, though, because having grown up in Baptist churches (even ones that didn’t even approach the subject with such hate), I can say that the Christian right definitely tends to foster this kind of behavior. I know, because I’ve been in the middle of it. It fosters and starts with an inherent disliking and demonization of homosexuals (and liberals and etc etc etc), and it becomes okay to make fun of them and use derogatory terms and they try to justify it because “gay is wrong” to them. It’s not sinful to make fun of people you dislike right? (ugh)

    The bad part of this is that, in that type of atmosphere, the Fred Phelps type can be spawned and grow without full opposition. While most Christians denounce his tactics, less of them would denounce his views.

    I hate it, because its hard to even practice my faith without feeling like I’m associated with hateful religious people, of which there are many today. These people especially make me sick.

    I wish those that claim to be Christians would at least attempt to read their own religious text instead of taking the words of their leaders as blind truth. The greatest commandment is love.

    If there’s anything “God hates” it’s hateful people.

    1. “I hate it, because its hard to even practice my faith without feeling like I’m associated with hateful religious people, of which there are many today.”

      Yeah, maybe you should think about that.

      And I will need to reread the commandments, I don’t remember the love one. How to treat slaves,how much god is the only god, how to slaughter goats, how and who women and children should obey,… Lets look for that love one…

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