January 1

There are 1 entries for this date: Megan Phelps-Roper

    Megan Phelps-Roper

    Megan Phelps-Roper

    On this date in 1986, former Westboro Baptist Church member Megan Phelps-Roper was born in Topeka, Kansas, the third of 11 children born to Shirley Phelps-Roper and Brent Roper. Her mother was one of 13 acknowledged children of Westboro founder Fred Phelps, a practicing attorney who founded the church in 1955 as a Primitive Baptist/Calvinist congregation. Most of the 100 or so congregants were also family members who lived in a compound in Topeka.

    Shirley Phelps-Roper was spokesperson and coordinated picketing the church started in Kansas and around the country in the early 1990s. Its website with its notorious message of “God Hates Fags” was prominently displayed on signs along with other hate speech citing biblical authority. The website was still active as of this writing in 2024 and included over 20 scheduled protests that May and June, mostly at college and high school graduations.

    “I picketed my own high school graduation before I walked in,” Megan said with a laugh to a Connecticut Jewish group in 2016, four years after she left the church. “We thought it was our duty to go and warn people of the consequences of their sins, and I understood that to be the definition of loving our neighbor. We would always say the sign doesn’t say anything about our personal hatred – it’s talking about the hatred of God.”

    Westboro has celebrated AIDS, hunger, the Sept. 11 attacks and other tragedies, including the Sandy Hook school massacre. Westboro announced it would protest school memorials with signs saying “Pray For More Dead Kids.” Others: “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” and “Thank God For IEDs.” Megan celebrated on 9/11 and later said Westboro believed God was punishing America for embracing homosexuality: “Soldiers Die, God Laughs.” Westboro eventually also targeted Jews. (Daily Mail, Oct. 5, 2019)

    She had held signs as a 5-year-old and as a budding teen argued online with Westboro detractors. She has admitted her upbringing was harsh, mentally and physically, but she still embraced church beliefs and its interpretations of the bible. “It was abusive – there’s no question in my mind it was. Gramp’s policy was to beat first, ask questions later.” (New York Times, Oct. 8, 2019)

    Deaths of some famous persons were celebrated. Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died within a week of each other when Megan was 11. “And I, modeling what my grandfather had said, you know, I said, ‘Two whores in a week.’ ” (“Fresh Air With Terry Gross, Oct. 10, 2019)

    While discipline was harsh and picketing was stressful, church members otherwise lived fairly normal lives, shrugging off being pelted by counter-protesters at times with eggs, tomatoes, urine and feces. Children attended public schools and education was a priority. Megan ran track in high school. “The Westboro students had a reputation for being diligent and polite in class, but at lunch they would picket the school, dodging food hurled at them by incensed classmates.” (The New Yorker, Nov. 15, 2015)

    “My mom and her siblings and many of their spouses are attorneys. They’re very intelligent, and their arguments are well-crafted and tightly woven. And so they always had an answer. There was always a bible verse to justify [their extreme rhetoric].” (Ibid., “Fresh Air”) Megan graduated from Washburn University in Topeka and worked for her family’s law firm.

    She started engaging with critics, including her future husband, on Twitter in 2009, which gradually made her consider opposing views. An older brother had cut ties with the church several years before, as had her uncle Nate Phelps and three of his siblings long before that. In 2012, she convinced her sister Grace, seven years younger, to leave the church with her during Grace’s sophomore year at Washburn. They ended up in Deadwood, S.D.

    An internal power struggle had led to Fred Phelps’ loss of influence. He was later excommunicated and Shirley was also removed from her coordinator position. He died in 2014 at age 84. Megan’s younger brother Zach left the church later that year. It’s all detailed in sometimes chilling detail in her 2019 memoir “Unfollow.”

    Six months after leaving Kansas, Megan went on a date with Chad Fjelland, who she’d engaged with on Twitter and is an attorney in eastern South Dakota. After marrying, they had a daughter, Sølvi Lynne, born in 2018, and a son, Tor Bjørn, born in 2022.

    Megan started speaking at events which she had previously protested. She gave a TED Talk in 2017 about Westboro and her decision to leave. As a guest in May 2021 on FFRF’s “Freethought Matters” talk show, she said: “I’d spent more than two decades of my life on this earth, targeting people and antagonizing people, believing that it was the right thing to do, and believing that I was showing love to people in doing so. Suddenly, it felt impossible to come to terms with the harm that we had wrought.”

    She was the recipient that year of FFRF’s Henry H. Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism Award, which Nate Phelps had received the year before for taking a stand against religious intolerance and bigotry.

    “I don’t really believe in God anymore. I don’t like to say I’m not a believer, because I’m a believer in a lot of things, primarily hope, and grace and the power of human connection. But God? No.”

    —KMBC News interview (Nov. 26, 2019)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn; photo by Ingrid Laas.

Freedom From Religion Foundation