Fred Phelps, founder of he staunchly anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, had a long and contentious relationship with the FBI, according to the late pastor’s newly released 250-page bureau file.
Phelps, who died in March 2014 at age 84, was known best for leading protests at funerals to highlight the church’s crusade against homosexuality.
He also attempted a U.S. Senate run in 1992, gaining almost 31 percent of the vote in the Kansas Democratic primary, and launched three failed gubernatorial bids.
The FBI's first mentions of Phelps occurred in 1967, when a confidential informant told the bureau that Phelps was “in need of psychiatric care.” At the time, he had been at the helm of Westboro for more than a decade but primarily worked as a lawyer.
However, it would not be the last time Phelps or the church caught the attention of federal law enforcement. He appears in FBI records in almost every year from 1993 to 2006. By August 2005, the bureau said in a memo that the Westboro Baptist Church founder was “well known to the FBI.”
Occasionally, FBI involvement came at the request of Phelps or other Westboro members, who submitted “terroristic” threats they received against the church to federal investigators.
“It would appear that Mr. Phelps is intentionally provoking these types of responses,” the FBI wrote to a U.S. district attorney in 1993 regarding reported death threats against Phelps. “Large amounts of money and investigative time can potentially be wasted investigating these threat letters. Historically, very few, if any, of these types of cases have been prosecuted in the District of Kansas.”
“The FBI does have the responsibility to investigate and prevent potential violence against any person regardless of their religious or political views, however,” continued a supervisory senior agent, whose name is redacted.
Phelps seemed to fuel the tensions between his church and the FBI. In 2001, while agents were investigating email threats allegedly sent by a Phelps impersonator, the pastor pointed to holes in his office windows that faced the street that were apparently caused by a pellet gun.
“Phelps stated if these holes had been made in a Jewish or black church, there would be dozens of FBI agents investigating,” the report reads.
Agents were not shy about referring to Phelps as a “zealot” and calling his rhetoric “almost militant” in the documents and repeatedly mentioning his disbarment.
While closing a civil rights investigation against someone who had allegedly made threats against the Westboro Baptist Church, the FBI agreed it could even refer to the church as a hate group.
“Since other groups list them as a hate group, we are kosher on that,” wrote someone within the Kansas City, Mo., office of the FBI, whose name was redacted.
In 1996, a female member of the Phelps family directly called the bureau to question “what the FBI was going to do about this situation” — referring to an anonymous caller who told local Kansas police and a news outlet that said he had hired killers to “take care” of the Westboro Baptist Church members “once and for all.”
Other records, including one from 2003, note that Phelps had been cooperative and “willing to be interviewed” during “several investigations” initiated over the previous decade. No prosecutions ever resulted.
During a 2005 investigation into whether individuals shot and damaged church property, though, Phelps refused to “enter FBI space” in order to be interviewed and placed several conditions on the intelligence agency during the investigation. In part, he insisted the interview take place “in the compound of the Westboro Baptist Church,” according to the documents. The FBI refused to comply and the case was put in "inactive" status.
The church, though small, rose to prominence because of its outspoken rhetoric about gays and lesbians.
Largely beginning its protest activity in the early 1990s, the church holds protests in cities and outside churches or religious sites, outside military bases or recruiting centers, on college campuses and high schools, and against anyone or any entity they feel enables homosexuality in some way.
The FBI kept tabs on several Westboro protests and counterprotests over the years, often interviewing informants in the various states in order to determine whether the group could potentially become violent. In each case, the FBI found no reason to believe it would. Phelps had been quoted as saying that he didn’t believe in violent strategies.
Still, the FBI had news clippings about the family and its protests in its records, passed around the Wikipedia entry for the Westboro Baptist Church in 2005, noting that it has a “pretty good rundown regarding members and family.” The bureau kept inflammatory press releases by the group.
Though the church started locally, in Topeka, Kan., the church’s members now travel around the country — and have even been to Iraq and Canada. By its own account, the church has picketed more than 54,500 times in nearly 1,000 cities.
The protest of the funeral for Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to death for being gay, put the church in the national spotlight in 1998. Ever since, they have appeared at funerals for fallen soldiers, religious leaders, celebrities — including Michael Jackson — and victims of mass shootings.
Most recently, the church group picketed outside a media outlet following the death of a producer for the sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” They called the comedian, Harris Wittels, a “f-- enabler” and held up a sign that said “Harris in Hell,” in addition to their usual “God Hates F--s” and “God Hates Proud Sinners” signs.
Phelps and the group won cases, including a Supreme Court decision, allowing them to protest at or around sensitive events. Even with all its suspicions and inquiries about the church, the bureau noted it was always careful to stay just inside the bounds of the law.
“Phelps is a disbarred attorney himself and keenly aware of what his rights and limitations are from a legal standpoint,” the FBI wrote in one document. “He and his followers carry a video camera with them to film those who attempt to stop them from demonstrating.”
--This post was updated at 1:22 p.m.