Westboro Baptist Church pickets Malibu

It wasn’t a typical Sunday morning in Malibu this week.

Members of the contentious Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) made their presence known in town as they demonstrated outside several Malibu houses of worship.

The tiny Topeka, Kansas-based fundamentalist church is known for picketing funerals of U.S. soldiers and promoting hate-laced propaganda directed at gay populations. Headed by disbarred Kansas attorney and pastor Fred Phelps, the church is said to be comprised of about 40 members, most of whom are related to Phelps.

WBC members were in town to picket Sunday night’s telecast of the Academy Awards, arriving Sunday morning in Malibu for some early picketing.

The media and law enforcement presence outnumbered Westboro picketers, usually the case at the church’s demonstrations, which are known for attracting publicity. The visiting fundamentalists waved banners and ostentatiously dragged American flags through roadside dust because, as one member said, “The U.S. is the world symbol for sodomy and same sex marriage.”

While demonstrating outside Malibu Presbyterian Church, Westboro members claimed that Pastor Greg Hughes had a “broken moral compass” and was lying to his congregation.

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“God doesn’t love everybody,” Westboro spokesman Steve Drain said. “Pastor Hughes is lying. He’s preaching a false doctrine for his salary.”

In 2011, Westboro famously won the Supreme Court decision Snyder v. Phelps in favor of its right to picket funerals of soldiers as protected speech, despite an array of amicus briefs filed by senators from dozens of states, the American Civil Liberties Union and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“We’re picketing the Oscars and here because we feel the people of Malibu deserve to know the truth,” Drain said. “We’re crying against altars. Anyone who mangles the Bible like [Hughes] is just lying. The idea that God loves everyone is a lie belched forth from the bowels of Hell. It’s Satan’s doctrine.”

Billy Valentine, a deacon at Malibu Presbyterian, watched the performance of the Westboro visitors with a bemused expression.

“You know, I went to law school with Fred Phelps, Jr. and have known these guys for 30 years,” Valentine said. “They are true believers. I once asked Fred [Jr.] to show me in the Bible the very words of Jesus that support his position and he couldn’t do it. It usually shuts them up.”

According to Drain and Westboro, rather than being a god of love, God is a god of vengeance and the Bible preaches “election and reprobation.” Drain likened his message to having two children, one to whom God gives ice cream and candy, and the other whom He punches repeatedly in the face.

“You wouldn’t say that God loved each of them the same, would you,” Drain asked. “The love and mercy of God is reserved for his elected.”

Since 2004, 20 members have left the church, three-fourths of them in their teens or twenties, according to the Kansas City Star.

Rachel Hockenbarger, Phelps’ daughter, was born and raised in the Westboro doctrine. She acknowledged that some of her siblings have left the church and distanced themselves from the extreme theology the church espouses. But she maintained that Westboro was the only church following “the actual words of Christ.”

When asked if they aimed to bring people to their church through their message, both Hockenbarger and Drain replied that it wasn’t their “job” to bring people to Westboro’s doctrine, it was just to preach.

After waving banners at passing cars for about 15 minutes, with most drivers responding with a single-digit salute, on Malibu Canyon Drive, the Westboro visitors decamped for another brief demonstration at the corner of Webb and Civic Center Ways.

Michael Harrison from Burlington, Vt., was exploring Legacy Park and was amused to see the Westboro clan. Vermont was the first state to pass laws recognizing same sex marriage.

“It’s an exercise in free speech but it’s sort of a jaundiced view on homosexuality,” Harrison said. “I don’t understand what motivates them. You’ve got to feel sort of sorry for them that this is all they have to say in the year 2013.”

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