Notorious US church leader backs teacher’s stance, but says he must obey the courts and gardaí
The pastor and patriarch of “America’s most hated family” has criticised Enoch Burke’s run-ins with the Irish judiciary and gardaí, saying: “What he is doing is wrong.”
Fred Phelps Jr (69) is the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, which was founded by his late father.
It is synonymous with spreading hate speech, anti-abortion messaging and picketing military funerals with placards emblazoned with anti-LGBTQ+ slogans, including “God Hates Fags”.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Phelps Jr said he backed Burke’s refusal to address a transgender pupil by a new name and personal pronouns, but said their views “part company” when it comes to the teacher’s refusal to accept court orders and the authority of An Garda Síochána.
Burke, an evangelical Christian, was suspended from his teaching job at Wilson’s Hospital School in Co Westmeath last August after he clashed with the board over what he says are his religious beliefs.
After being jailed for 108 days for contempt of court, the history and German teacher was dismissed, but continues to show up for work, even after the school secured a High Court injunction preventing him attending its premises.
“Ourselves and the Burkes certainly agree on the sin and folly of transgenderism,” said Phelps Jr, who is also an attorney.
“But what he [Burke] has done is disregard court orders and shown disrespect to the courts. The Bible says we must obey those in authority. He and his family have not followed that. It is there that we part company with the Burkes.
“If you are going to be in the arena, if you are going to be in the boxing ring, you have to follow the rules of the game. You have to follow the rules of the ring, otherwise you have chaos.
“What they are doing is wrong. You have to be peaceful and lawful. When the other side has guns and jail on its side, it is hard to win. This is elementary stuff. I’m 35 years an attorney. The court system is there to be obeyed.”
Phelps Jr said he was aware of Burke’s imprisonment, as well as his recent arrest outside the school over alleged trespassing. He said Burke was fighting a battle he could not win against “authority figures”.
“We sympathise and support their position [in opposition to transgenderism]. If he is not breaking any law, he should stand outside the school. He should be able to stand where he wants and preach what he wants.”
Phelps Jr was speaking while taking part in a protest on a highway in Kansas with other members of Westboro Baptist Church.
“We think it’s our obligation to protest. I’m at a protest right now,” he said. “I’m holding a sign that says ‘Same-sex marriage dooms nations’. I’m doing it in a public place, so I have the right. The approach the Burke family should be taking is to appeal court decisions, not openly defy them.”
The Burke family have not been in touch with his church, he added.
“If they call here, we’d be more than happy to talk to them, to advise them. You Irish folks are known for being pugilistic. This transgenderism stuff, it’s about as smack in the mouth into the God of the Bible as you can get. The Bible clearly says it is an abomination. You are born either male or female.”
Speaking about Ireland’s legalisation of abortion in 2019, Phelps Jr said: “I saw a video of Irish people dancing in the streets after the abortion referendum was passed. When you have a society that accepts that, this is what you get.”
Westboro Baptist Church rose to international prominence in 2007 after documentary maker Louis Theroux spent time with the Phelps family for a BBC programme. The Most Hated Family in America highlighted the church’s controversial beliefs, teachings and protests. Theroux has twice revisited the family for follow-ups.
How does Phelps Jr feel about the publicity, mostly negative, generated by the documentaries?
“In 1957 this church was founded by my dad. I’m the oldest child of 13 children. The teaching has been to go into the world and preach. I think that’s a wonderful thing to do,” he said. “The Louis Theroux documentaries, that has all been a part of that.”
The actions by members of the church in staging protests at the funerals of US military personnel killed in action, with signs stating “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, were widely condemned after the first documentary aired.