Topeka Capital Journal
December 20, 1995
You might say the Rev. Fred Phelps is exactly where he wants to be. He is on the front page and the editorial page with some regularity, and also at times on other pages, this one included. He and his followers are free to picket anything and anybody, whenever and wherever they choose. He has the city divided. This newspaper and some concerned citizens have laid the “Phelps problem” on Mayor Butch Felker’s doorstep, but he has responded defiantly, saying it’s not his fault the picketing outrage goes on unchecked.
Felker says he has ordered all laws enforced. Police chief Gerald Beavers says all laws are being enforced. Beavers says all laws are being enforced. Yet, some police officers say they’ve been told to ignore the name-calling by the Phelps gang, and have been warned the city won’t back them if they make an arrest.
So now an investigation of the police department is brewing, and the bickering has started. It could take years. Phelps must have one big belly laugh after another.
To top it all off, when charges are brought the trials are held in Emporia on a change of venue, and it has been difficult to get convictions. Just last week a jury there couldn’t agree in a case involving Jonathan Phelps.
He was charged with calling a woman a “whore” when he was on a picket line. At the trial he said he didn’t mean the term in the commonly accepted sense, but rather in biblical usage, which made it perfectly harmless. Believe it or not, some juror swallowed that, and hung the jury.
It says here that if the Nuremberg war crimes trial had been held before an Emporia jury, Hermann Goering would have wound up mayor of the city. An Emporia jury would have awarded O.J. Simpson damages for being inconvenienced by the murder charges.
The Phelpses must have Emporia bamboozled, although I happen to know that the city believes in law and order. One time a young man there was asleep in his car, which was parked, and he had the motor running and the heater on because it was cold. He was sleeping off about 14 beers he had consumed earlier. But police officers woke him up and charged him with drunk driving.
This seemed rather farfetched, so he got a lawyer and went to trial, but he was convicted, even though he was parked when arrested. He should have told the jury he didn’t drink the beer in the ordinary sense of drinking beer, but rather quaffed it in a scripture-inspired effort to cleanse his soul and renew his spirit.
It might have worked. The jury might have charged the cops with interfering with a religious rite.
Topeka’s problem, however, is not in Emporia. It is right here, where a war of sorts is being waged between the city and Phelps. It’s hard to believe, but Phelps is winning, and it’s really no contest.
The city, despite a huge edge in manpower and resources, has not stopped Phelps or even slowed him down. He has steadily gathered steam and enough financial support from somewhere to keep going. He once said, “I ain’t rich, but I ain’t hurting,” and he seems to have whatever it takes to go on indefinitely.
Felker says he is sick of hearing that Phelps is holding the city hostage, but that feeling has not caused him to do anything meaningful to end the hostilities. He acts instead as if he doesn’t realize the citizens of Topeka are more fed up with Phelps than he ever thought of being.
It is said of Felker that he fears lawsuits even more than he fears the next election, and thus fears Phelps, even though some good lawyers have volunteered to defend the city against any Phelps action. Felker has been a mere spectator while Phelps sacks the city.
The picketing preacher is gaining a national audience as well as local. Recently there was a long Washington Post story on him headlined “Holy Hell” and in it both Felker and Beavers came off as foes Phelps would not have a lot of reason to worry about. Commenting to the post reporter on Phelps’ picketing, Felker is quoted as saying the Bible says homosexuality is a sin.
While interviewing Phelps at his office in the Westboro Baptist Church, the Post reporter said the phone rang, and it was Beavers returning a call. The reporter said Phelps scolded the police chief for lack of protection, and after hanging up smiled and said something about keeping the chief in line.
It is common knowledge that a tough police force, backed by a tough mayor, can rid any city of any blight, Phelps included. If Phelps and his troops are charged enough times, maybe they’ll give up just because they’re tired of going to Emporia, even though they know they’ll be acquitted.