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Religious Bigots Find a Home in the Kansas Prison Industry

Hate is a strong word. Many prison employees and DOC officials are contemptuous of or indifferent to the prisoners in their custody. Detention facility staff are sometimes negligent, retaliatory and even abusive, but they seldom display a fanatical hatred toward prisoners. There is, however, one group whose deep burning hatred and extremism are apparently well suited for employment in the criminal justice field.

For those who aren’t familiar with Rev. Fred W. Phelps, Sr., the 77-year-old reverend leads the fire-and-brimstone Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Phelps and his religious clan–consisting of approximately 80 followers, including numerous members of the Phelps extended family–have gained national attention through their high-profile protests at funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq.

The Westboro Baptist Church believes that the United States is being punished due to a tolerance of homosexuality; they have various other beliefs, all of which center around such slogans as “God hates fags” and “God hates America.” The Phelps clan has also demonstrated at funeral services for gay murder victims and for the 12 West Virginia mine workers killed in an accident earlier this year, and planned to protest at the funerals of five Amish children murdered in Pennsylvania in October, 2006.

As one writer put it, the church members “also rejoice in the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami that devastated Asia two years ago, and AIDS. They believe God hates Santa, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, soldiers, me, and if I had to guess, they probably believe that God hates you.” Apparently Phelps and his followers believe they are the only people whom God doesn’t hate.

The Westboro Baptist Church protests include inflammatory picket signs, name-calling, desecration of the American flag, and an extra helping of Phelps’ hate-filled philosophy. Laws have been enacted across the nation to limit such funeral demonstrations, including federal legislation signed into law in May 2006, but several such measures have been struck down by courts on free speech grounds.

Interestingly, many of the Phelps are attorneys. Patriarch Fred Phelps, Sr., who had a lengthy law career, has been disbarred; eleven of his 13 children are lawyers. More interestingly, six of the Phelps family are or were previously employed by various jails and the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Margie Phelps, an attorney, currently works for the Kansas Dept. of Correction as the agency’s Director of Re-entry Planning; she attends the group’s funeral protests outside of work hours. Her brother, Fred Phelps, Jr., a former parole officer, is a staff attorney with the Kansas DOC. Both Margie and Fred Jr. were previously temporarily suspended from practicing law following disciplinary action. Timothy Phelps is presently employed as a spokesman for the Shawnee County Dept. of Corrections. Lee Ann Phelps and Elizabeth Phelps both formerly held positions with the Shawnee County Sheriff’s Department, while Abigail Phelps, another active participant in the group’s funeral protests, works in the staff development office for Kansas’ Juvenile Justice Authority.

Despite their hate-filled, anti-American ranting outside the workplace, the Phelps’ personal beliefs apparently do not affect their on-the-job performance. Jack Rickerson, director of the state’s human resources department, stated that Margie Phelps’ activities outside of work “violated no state policy.” Kansas DOC Secretary Roger Werholtz was quoted as saying, “I don’t agree with her views,” but said Margie Phelps was “a good employee.” Kansas state Senator Jean Schodorf called the situation an embarrassment, stating that members of the Phelps clan employed in corrections ” kind of flaunt that they work for the state and can’t be terminated” due to civil service protections.

Under the belief that practicing law and acting as an officer of the court are inherently inconsistent with the hate-mongering practiced by members of the Phelps clan, in February 2006, Prison Legal News associate editor ALEX FRIEDMANn filed an ethics complaint against Shirley L. Phelps-Roper. Phelps-Roper, an attorney with the family’s law firm, Phelps Chartered, actively participates in the church’s funeral protests. The state Office of the Disciplinary Administrator, however, refused to file the complaint, stating First Amendment concerns would “preclude a successful investigation and prosecution of the Phelps.” A request for reconsideration of the Disciplinary Administrator’s decision was refused.

Apparently fanatical hate, inflammatory name-calling and intolerance are acceptable practices for attorneys–and prison and jail employees–in the state of Kansas.

ALEX FRIEDMAN writes for Prison Legal News, where this article originally appeared.

 

 

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