They call themselves the Patriot Guard Riders, and they are more than 5,000 strong, forming to counter anti-gay protests held by the Rev. Fred Phelps at military funerals.
Phelps believes American deaths in Iraq are divine punishment for a country that he says harbors homosexuals. His protesters carry signs thanking God for so-called IEDs — explosives that are a major killer of soldiers in Iraq.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a daughter of Fred Phelps and an attorney for the Topeka, Kan.-based church, said neither state laws nor the Patriot Guard can silence their message that God killed the soldiers because they fought for a country that embraces homosexuals.
“The scriptures are crystal clear that when God sets out to punish a nation, it is with the sword. An IED is just a broken-up sword,” Phelps-Roper said. “Since that is his weapon of choice, our forum of choice has got to be a dead soldier’s funeral.”
The church, Westboro Baptist Church, is not affiliated with a larger denomination and is made up mostly of Fred Phelps’ extended family members.
During the 1990s, church members were known mostly for picketing the funerals of AIDS victims, and they have long been tracked as a hate group by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.