Fred Phelps is getting help from the American Civil Liberties Union. Phelps, of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, is suing in federal court, challenging a Missouri law that prohibits protesting at military funerals. I've held in the past that Phelps' attempts to get into the news should be avoided by journalists. But when laws are enacted to prohibit the stunts pulled by his group, you can't help but write about him. And journalists should. But now the ACLU is on his side, and that makes this an even bigger, and profoundly ironic, story.
For some background, this is the same ACLU that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But let's not forget the "pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way," Falwell said on The 700 Club.
So now we've come full circle:
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A Kansas church group that protests at military funerals nationwide filed suit in federal court, saying a Missouri law banning such picketing infringes on religious freedom and free speech.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit Friday in the U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, Mo., on behalf of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, which has outraged mourning communities by picketing service members' funerals with signs condemning homosexuality.
The church and the Rev. Fred Phelps say God is allowing troops, coal miners and others to be killed because the United States tolerates gay men and lesbians.
It's tough to deny the ACLU a level of credibility based on its attempts to act on principle. It's certainly making for some interesting copy. Falwell and Robertson certainly made news for their comments after the terrorist attacks. Thankfully Phelps does not have that type of bully pulpit and following, but he is in the news again for legitimate reasons. Some loaded comments slipped into the AP story, and I'll use this as an opportunity to highlight why journalists must be careful about how they cover this guy:
"I told the nation, as each state went after these laws, that if the day came that they got in our way, that we would sue them," said Phelps's daughter Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, a spokeswoman for the church in Topeka, Kan. "At this hour, the wrath of God is pouring out on this country."
A reporter with a decent level of knowledge of religion will understand that Phelps-Roper's comments are religiously loaded, and follow-up questions should abound when someone makes that type of statement. A comment included in a story as if it were just a normal quote -- with no background or context -- fails to explain the shaky theological foundation on which this group stands.
Any reporter who believes Phelps represents anything close to a fraction of the diverse religious landscape in America needs to do more research. So fine, quote Phelps and his daughter, but do it in a way that provides proper context and understanding.