TOPEKA — The estranged son of a controversial Kansas pastor encouraged people to feel sympathy for members of his father's church, "at least for the young children stuck in that situation."
Nate Phelps, 51, spoke in Topeka on Saturday, marking his first trip in 20 years to the city where his father, Fred Phelps, runs Westboro Baptist Church. He described the fear, intimidation and abuse he endured before leaving the family and church on his 18th birthday.
He said that while society is quick to take steps to protect children, it seems "curiously blind" when religious beliefs jeopardize a child's safety. He also predicted that the group would eventually die out.
None of its members picketed the speech.
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Westboro Baptist members, many of them Fred Phelps' children and grandchildren, have conducted anti-homosexual picketing in Topeka and other cities since 1991. They began picketing soldiers' funerals in recent years, saying military deaths were the work of a wrathful God who punishes the United States for tolerating homosexuality.
The Supreme Court will hear one such case this fall in which a soldier's family sued the church to halt the demonstrations. A lower court ordered the soldier's family to pay the church's court costs — a $16,500 judgment that the congregation said it would use for more protests.
The Supreme Court said it would consider whether the protesters' actions were protected by the First Amendment.
Westboro Baptist first grabbed widespread notice in 1998, when members appeared outside the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student whose murder drew national attention.
Nate Phelps, who describes himself as an atheist, said he believed his father's group would eventually become a footnote in Topeka history. But he encouraged people to do whatever they could to ensure Westboro Baptist's actions "fall on barren soil and are cast away like dust in the wind."
About 675 people attended Saturday's free talk, said Ryan Seddon, event coordinator for Topeka Performing Arts Center. The event's sponsors were the Richard Dawkins Foundation; the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center; and the Metropolitan Community Church of Topeka.
Nate Phelps described his father as "combative, angry, hateful, destructive." He also said he hadn't talked much about his origins since fleeing Topeka at the stroke of midnight on his 18th birthday.
But in 2008, the media began writing about his father and calling him for comment, he said.
"That forced me to think about whether I have an obligation to speak out," he said. "I have a unique voice and maybe some positive things could come out of that."
He also said he is writing a book and working with different organizations "for changes in laws to make it more difficult for people to abuse their children based on religion."