TOPEKA, Kan. -- In the quiet shadow of the state Capitol, Bill Duckworth stands just inside the Tool Shed Tap bar and lets out a long sigh.
He's a veteran and openly gay member of a community long unhappy about pickets by a virulently anti-homosexual religious group based here. But on this Saturday night, Duckworth says he's still wary about the biggest news in town: the $10.9 million judgment against the group, Westboro Baptist Church, in a Baltimore courtroom.
"I felt like it might have been offensive, but that's their right," the 55-year-old printing press worker says of the military funeral protest in Maryland that prompted a deceased Marine's father to sue Westboro. "That's what our military is fighting for. It's why our country was founded."
Just how to deal with Westboro - whose members believe God's wrath is killing soldiers because of America's tolerance of gays - remains an open question for this exhausted prairie city. For more than 15 years, civic leaders have tried to rein in Westboro's inflammatory picketing without violating constitutional rights.
They admit they've had little success.
Mayor William W. Bunten is so mortified by what he calls the "local Topeka hate group" that he sends out a warning letters to municipal leaders across the country who find themselves in Westboro's crosshairs. Church members responded by filing a freedom of information request to find out how much the letters cost to mail.
The local performing arts center director tries to reassure bookers who worry that their acts will be met with Westboro signs like "Thank God for dead soldiers." People still talk about the time more than a decade ago when poet Maya Angelou was so shaken by a Westboro protest in Topeka that she canceled other scheduled appearances in Kansas.
To its critics, Westboro is more a savvy cult of personality than organized religion. They say its acolytes carry signs with offending words and stick figures engaged in sexual acts because they want to attract the media spotlight.
Last month, jurors in U.S. District Court in Baltimore brushed aside Westboro's First Amendment defense, for the first time. They found that church members intentionally harmed the grieving family of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder by an anti-gay funeral demonstration in Westminster in March 2006 and by a subsequent Internet posting about his family background. Members plan to appeal.
Ever defiant, the 77-year-old founder, Fred W. Phelps Sr., and his family are basking in the attention despite the potentially devastating financial judgment against him, his two daughters and the church. "The picketing ministry ... is a divine work of infinite wisdom, knowledge," he thundered in his Sunday sermon last week, and accused the Baltimore jury of "demonic contempt" for his ministry.
Immediately after the verdict, the sign shop at Westboro had churned out a defiant placard for the protests that continue across the nation: "Thank God for $10.9 million."
In the beginning, Fred Phelps wanted to become a military leader.
The Mississippi native secured admission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, his children say. But a revelatory revival he attended just before he was to enroll launched Phelps on a different path. He founded the self-described Primitive Baptist ministry on Calvinist principles more than 50 years ago.
Phelps' faith had always been intertwined with his job as a lawyer. He spent years filing civil rights lawsuits and claiming moral inspiration from the Kansas-based Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision by the Supreme Court. Critics say Phelps had substantial legal skills, but they also said that many of his lawsuits were seen as outrageous, failing altogether or ending with small settlements.
Records show the Kansas Supreme Court suspended his law license in 1969 and disbarred him in 1979 for harassing a court reporter. He later retired from the practice of law.
Now 11 of his 13 children are lawyers.
It wasn't until 1991 that the group's roughly 70 members - most related to Phelps - were first reviled for staging daily, in-your-face demonstrations that damned local residents to hell for any acceptance of homosexuality.
In the world according to Westboro, almost all "earthdwellers" are homosexuals or homosexual "enablers." Its "modest" members are the only ones eligible to be "God's elect." The church's Web site features cheery music videos of popular hip-hop songs that have been given new lyrics with an anti-homosexual message.
Westboro's moral campaign changed course radically after Sept. 11, 2001, to protesting military funerals from coast to coast. The protests occur regardless of whether the church believes the service member is homosexual.
Over the years, inside the suburban neighborhood around Phelps' church, a loose compound has taken shape for his followers. His granddaughter Megan Phelps-Roper says about a dozen houses within several blocks of the church are now owned by Westboro members.