Like any workaday mother with small children, Shirley Phelps-Roper has her hands full. And, today, she's rushed off her feet. "I'll have to get back to you later," she tells me. "I'm just on my way out the door."
I'm picturing a school run, homework on a table and, maybe later, Shirley stirring a bowlful of chocolate Rice Krispies when she ominously adds: "I'm going to picket the funerals of the people who died in the bridge collapse in Minnesota. Many were killed!" She sounds perky, excited almost. "But I'll take your questions with me and get back to you tomorrow."
I'm surprised Shirley is being quite so friendly given that I am probably the embodiment of her (many) pet hates: Irish ("a nation of sodomites"), gay ("damned to the fires of hell for all eternity") and a journalist ("modern media are a monolithic propaganda machine for Satan's Big Lie").
In fairness to me, however, I'm a lapsed Catholic (and therefore not part of "the greatest paedophile machine in the world") and whilst whatever I write will, no doubt, "metaphorically smear fag feces (sic) and semen on the pages of the Bible", at the same time, publicity is like oxygen to Shirley. I know she'll get back to me as soon as she's done terrorising those grieving relatives.
The trip to Minnesota is just one of many that she will make this year. She and her family, who form the bulk of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), an extreme -- to put it mildly -- evangelist group which travels all around America and Europe to picket the funerals of soldiers who died in the Iraq conflict, victims of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and victims of school shootings, such as the attacks on the Amish children last year in Pennsylvania.
The WBC believes God has preordained these deaths as punishment for a world which has "surrendered to a lifestyle of soul-destroying, nation-damning filth". To make this point they will wave placards saying things like "God blew up the troops" and "God is not mocked" and scream at grieving relatives that their father or son is now in hell. The activities have earned them the moniker "the most hated family in America" and a regular spot on shock jock talk shows and Fox news (which, in its jousts with the Phelps family, seems to thoroughly enjoy being one step to the left, for once).
Unsurprisingly, the WBC, which is made up almost entirely of the extended Phelps family (most estimates put the membership at around 100), have been shot at, driven at and physically attacked many times over the years, but they are essentially protected by the US Constitution's first amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. Various legal measures have been passed to protect mourners and, in some states, the WBC cannot go within 500 feet of a funeral. In some cases, counter protests have been organised, but nothing seems to deter the church's members.
The WBC is known to be virulently anti-Semitic, anti-Islam and anti-Catholic, but reserves most of its vast reserves of bile for gay people. It is author of the notorious godhatesfags.com website.
The site contains endless quotes from the Old Testament, some seriously shaky interpretations of scripture as well as anonymous "testimonials" from gay men who "recognise that Aids is a reward for a lifetime of faggotry (sic) and promiscuity".
For the MTV generation of Bible-bashers, there is a music video (with catchy lyrics like, "I passed a church filled up with perverts/ immodest females who preach and subvert") and a little celeb-watching -- "Ellen Degeneres is a filthy, God-hating, disobedient dyke").
There's also a brainteaser to while away the hours entitled Fags v Kids ("the object of the game is to place exactly five sodomites -- represented by pink swastikas -- and exactly three kids -- represented by a baby bottle -- onto the grid on the right so that none of the the sodomites can get their repulsive hands on the children"). Suduko move over.
As with the military funerals, the WBC targets the funerals of gay people, most notoriously the burial of Matthew Shephard, an American student who was brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998. Shephard had been the victim of a homophobic hate crime and his death prompted outpourings of grief and candlelit vigils all across America and Europe.
The WBC, on the other hand, picketed Shephard's funeral and its members called his mother, Judy, a "whore" during the service. Afterwards, they applied for planning permission for a monument near Shephard's grave. The monument was to be "made of granite and five or six feet high bearing Shephard's picture and the words, 'Matthew Shephard entered hell on October 12, 1998, in defiance of God's warning: 'Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind, it is an abomination.'"
Their site still features an image of Shephard surrounded by flames as well as a tally of the number of days he has "been in hell".
Ireland is the newest target of the WBC's internet assault and at the end of July they set up godhatesireland.com. The site has as its mascot a cartoon redhead boy being buggered by a surly-looking leprechaun. Somewhat incongruously, the cartoon character has a smile on his face and, in a play on the commercial catchphrase for the popular Lucky Charms cereal, he utters the lines: "They're always after me little Catholic lads, they're tragically pernicious." There's a photo of a girl, Shirley's niece, dancing an Irish jig on the Irish flag. I ask Shirley if her niece took any Irish dancing lessons in preparation for this piece of al fresco theatre, or if there was any music playing, and she told me: "No, she didn't take lessons. She's just talented. And there was definitely no music playing. You're killing me here."
So why does God hate Ireland? Because, according to Shirley, it's "the pink isle of the sodomite damned" and home to "fag Irish senator David Norris and dyke-enabler Mary Robinson". Among other wild claims about 90 per cent of Irish priests being homosexuals. Shirley added that she heard we had lovely landscape here and, if we weren't all perverts, she'd like to think she might have paid a visit some day.
The spur to set up the site is believed to be an invitation from UCD's Literary and Historical Society to what they called the WBC's "esteemed" leader and founder, Fred Phelps, to speak at a debate on gay adoption.
Phelps feared that if he came and did his usual shtick he would be arrested under the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act (which is "a draconian, antichristic (sic) cup of Satan's slimy vomit, straight from the maw of hell") and that he was thus being set up by the UCD society. Shirley Phelps-Roper said Fred would come to Ireland only if pigs fly. "And," she added, "I mean really fly, not in a retouched photograph, or shot out of a catapult".
I try to reason with Shirley that not all public figures in Ireland are so accepting of gay people. Surely she has heard of the Paisleys, who have a morbid fear of the Catholic Church? She smells a rat. "The thing about him that is a huge red flag is that he presumes to call himself 'reverend'. That is a term used in scripture one time and it is reserved for God. He doesn't seem to have taken the position that it's OK to be gay however, which is good . . . the only way Ian Paisley could be saved is if he serves the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, might and mind and he does this in truth!"
Some have speculated that another reason Phelps does not want to travel is that, at 77, he is too frail to make the trip. He has been protesting and picketing for over 20 years and while he still preaches (including his infamous God Hates Ireland speech) most interviews and media requests are now dealt with by Shirley.
One of the big questions surrounding the history and foundation of the WBC is What Exactly Happened To Fred Phelps? Little in his early life provides a clue that he was going to later turn into a full-blown religious maniac and cult leader. Although he attended the fundamentalist Bob Jones University (the same college from which Dr Paisley received his honorary doctorate), after qualifying as a lawyer in the Sixties he took on many civil-rights cases and, in fact, received an award from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) for his trouble. His law firm, Phelps Chartered, was hugely successful and won one of the first reverse discrimination cases in the United States.
Then came the first real public premonition of the demagogue that Phelps would later become. In 1977, Phelps took a case against a court reporter, Carolene Brady, who had failed to have a court transcript ready for Phelps when he asked for it. As it turned out, he didn't need the transcript in the end, but still pressed ahead with the civil suit against Brady.
Once he had her on the stand he accused her of being a "slut", alleged she had committed a variety of sexual acts (with boyfriends whom he wanted to subpoena) and ultimately reduced her to tears. The Kansas Supreme Court later found that the case was nothing more than "the exercise of a personal vendetta by Phelps against Carolene Brady" and, two years later, Phelps was permanently disbarred for perjury. He compensated for this by having his children take up law. Eleven of them now hold law degrees. He became actively involved in local and national politics, fundraising for Democratic candidates and running for governor of Kansas several times. His eldest son hosted a fundraiser for Al Gore at his house (which was attended by Gore) and the Phelps family were invited to both of Bill Clinton's inaugurations.
All the while, however, the WBC -- which he founded in 1955 with his wife Margie -- was bubbling away in the background. He started small and local with the pickets, first protesting at a local park in Topeka, which he alleged, had been "taken over by sodomites". Soon he and his family were picketing businesses they believed employed gay people and the funerals of those he thought might have died of Aids. The national stage was next and in the Nineties he was often to be seen picketing televised gay rights events, gradually moving on to bigger and bigger targets.
Phelps never forgot the little people though. He was extremely vindictive and nasty in targeting individuals. After a local politician in Topeka, Beth Mechler, publicly expressed doubt at his claim that people were having sex in a local park, he sent her a fax calling her "a Jezebellian switch-hitting whore" and disseminated confidential blood bank records which showed she was carrying hepatitis antibodies. Phelps alleged that she had contracted the disease as a result of a sexual encounter, a charge she denied. Nevertheless the mud stuck in one of the most conservative states in America and Mechler was defeated at the next election. Phelps succeeded in his aim when she left politics for good.
His church, which, he says, follows the teachings of John Calvin, operates from a compound in Topeka. Outside a giant American flag flies upside down and at half-mast, signifying to the Phelps family the degradation of their nation. Most of the original neighbours have sold their houses, which have then been bought up by members of the Phelps clan or the three other families, which make up the WBC. Charles Hockenbarger, who has been a friend since they were in their 20s, had his entire family join the WBC. Another man, Steve Drain, visited the Phelps family as a documentary filmmaker and came to accept their twisted theology. He is particularly involved in hand-painting the signs that are used in the pickets. Fred Phelps doesn't allow anyone to marry outside of the group so there have been a number of marriages between the families. The children of the families attend the local state school, in which they claim they are "hated". In an interview, Shirley Phelps's daughters have expressed doubt that anyone would consider marrying them but Shirley herself confides: "If the Lord our God has a husband for them, they will marry. We don't try to fix these things". The Phelps adults mostly have jobs (some are listed on anti-WBC websites) and although the American Southern Law Poverty Centre has classified the church as a "hate group" (similar to the Ku Klux Klan), the IRS (the American Revenue Commissioners) still considers it a church and thus, incredibly, the $250,000 it annually spends on picketing funerals is written off against tax. America is literally paying for these pickets.
Not all of the Phelps children have remained in the WBC. Two of Fred Phelps's sons, Mark and Nathan, left the church and now allege that their father would regularly and savagely beat them with a wooden handle when they were children. They are persona non grata in the compound and Shirley prefers not speak of them. Her sister, Dortha Bird, changed her name after escaping from the sect.
In an interview, she too emphasised the abuse in the Phelps household, saying: "Growing up, it was chaos. It was intense and
scary. There was a blow-up at least once a week." She alleged that rather than a wooden handle, Fred would use a leather strap on the girls. "He would do it in rounds. You'd think he would be finished and then he would get his anger up and do it again. God, that thing stung, you can't imagine. It left welts that looked hollow inside, like flat little horseshoes."
It has been alleged that by bringing her little boys on the pickets with her and making them desecrate the American flag Shirley Phelps is also guilty of child abuse. In June she was arrested in Nebraska for having her son, 8, step on an American flag. The irony was not lost on one commentator, who noted that "Nebraska's laws prevent gay adoption yet they allow Shirley Roper-Phelps custody of a child, only stepping in when he supposedly insults the national flag".
She expresses incredulity and outrage that she did anything untoward. "How could they possibly lay on that charge?"
It has recently been reported in the American media that she once gave birth to an illegitimate child. Isn't this hypocritical of her since her father has called other women "whores" for being in the same position?
"You should first stop trying to act like a thing I did in the foolishness of my youth excludes me from learning better and doing better -- stop that!
"That manner of life is not my vocation as it is with this generation. I grew up in a doomed America. The miracle is that I understand at all what the standard of God is and that I have the least bit of interest in obeying that standard."
It's easy to laugh off her ramblings as coming from the lunatic fringe of the Deep South. But one of the interesting points about the WBC is that they actually garner quite a bit of support in America.
They frequently receive letters pledging monetary support, and even those who try to dissuade them from holding up "God Hates Fags" signs at funerals often begin their objections with, "Now listen, I don't agree with the lifestyle either, but there are other ways."
Their hateful rhetoric has its "respectable" echoes in laws across much of America and Europe where gay people are in many instances still not allowed to marry or adopt children and can be dismissed from their jobs simply for living their lives openly. And is the God Hates Fags slogan all that different from the Catholic Church's "hate the sin, not the sinner?"
Like the established religions it claims to hate, the WBC is not for turning on the gay issue. Shirley tells me she is "sorry I was raised for the devil" and adds that she has a message for the people of Ireland.
"Your nation is doomed. But each of you has a never-dying soul. If you care about where you are going to spend eternity -- for ever, with no time off for good behaviour and no change except your increased capacity to withstand pain and with that capacity comes more pain -- then you will repent.
"Otherwise, the worms will eat out of you and the smoke of your torment will ascend upward for ever and ever and you'll have flames coming out of your eyes."
I tell her that we are working on the flying pig.