The repugnant flier, sent to the funeral home last week, ended up in the hands of a young Fort Carson soldier who was getting ready to help bury a fallen brother.
Ryan Smith's voice shook as he described the message delivered by representatives of Westboro Baptist Church. Under the heading "Thank God for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices)," the announcement read: "God Himself has now become America's terrorist, killing Americans in strange lands for Brokeback Mountain fag sins."
"This is beyond ..." Smith's voice trails off. "I can't even come up with a description for it.
"It's inhumane. It's sick. It's just wrong."
And so it was that Pastor Fred Phelps, the patriarch of the Topeka, Kan.-based church, and his three minivans full of relatives showed up Saturday to jeer the funeral of Sgt. Gordon F. Misner II, a 23-year-old husband and father of three. Misner, along with two other soldiers from Fort Carson's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, was killed by a roadside bomb on Feb. 22 near Balad, Iraq, some 50 miles north of Baghdad.
In the last 15 years, Phelps' church has made a national name for itself by speaking out against homosexuality. In Colorado Springs alone, followers have protested at the Air Force Academy, Focus on the Family andeven Palmer High School. Over the last year, Phelps has found a new niche: picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq.
In Phelps' mind, America, formerly a great nation, is doomed, committing suicide, having reached the bottom rung for being "profoundly gay."
A national countermovement has organized in response. The Patriot Guard is a group of bikers, most of them veterans, whose members are showing up by the hundreds to soldiers' funerals across the country and creating human shields to separate grieving families from the Westboro protesters. When the Phelps clan starts chanting or singing, the bikers rev their engines to drown them out.
On Saturday, an estimated 250 to 300 bikers stood shoulder to shoulder, holding large American flags, outside Evergreen Funeral Home in south-central Colorado Springs.
"These families have enough grief they shouldn't have to deal with that," says Bill Farley of Monument, a veteran of Vietnam and Desert Storm. "They need to know their soldier didn't die in vain."
Farley's wife, Colleen, says Sgt. Misner died protecting the United States Constitution including the right to free speech. "How dare they dishonor that?"
As of Tuesday, the number of members posted on the group's Web site, patriotguard.org, had swelled to 17,465. Yet in the midst of last Saturday's protest, Phelps ridiculed the bikers, calling them a "petty little crowd" as compared to the 500 Patriot Guard bikers who had shown up at another Westboro-targeted soldier's funeral in Flushing, Mich.
Phelps claims he spends $250,000 a year on airfare to travel to cities across the country to protest the "three Ds": degeneracy, debauchery and depravity. He insists he does not take contributions, lest his enemies liken him to "mongrel, kissy-poo moneygrubbers" like Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham. He refused to divulge where he gets the money to fund his family's activities.
The National Council of State Legislatures reports that in direct response to Phelps, 22 states have introduced bills to restrict or ban protests at funerals; of those, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin have enacted laws. As of press time, no similar legislation had been introduced in Colorado.
"I just love it to death," Phelps says of the new laws. "It focuses renewed attention on how many states in the nation are willing to stomp on the Constitution."
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