Two granddaughters of Westboro Baptist Church firebrand Fred Phelps have split with the Topeka-based congregation, indicating their views have evolved and they now regret the pain they have caused others.
One of them, 27-year-old Megan Phelps-Roper, had been a highly visible member of the church who spoke to media outlets and spread its message via Twitter.
She and a younger sister, Grace Phelps-Roper, in November left the congregation known for its anti-gay stance and for picketing funerals of fallen soldiers and others.
“We ripped the Band-Aid off,” Megan wrote in a text Wednesday to The Star.
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A statement signed by both sisters and posted on social media Wednesday said the two were trying to figure out their future.
“We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people,” the statement said. “Inflicting pain on others wasn’t the goal, but it was one of the outcomes. We wish it weren’t so and regret that hurt.”
Steve Drain, a spokesman for the church, said in an interview Wednesday that the sisters had rejected the Lord.
“We can’t control whether or not somebody decides, when they grow up, that they don’t want to be here,” Drain said. “Those two girls were kind of straddling the idea that they wanted to be of the world but that they would also miss their family, the only thing they ever knew. If they continue with the position that they have, those two girls, yeah, they’re going to hell.”
Megan and Grace are among 11 children of Brent and Shirley Roper, who is the daughter of Westboro pastor Fred Phelps.
Libby Phelps Alvarez, who left Westboro in 2009 after becoming disenchanted with some of its radical beliefs, told The Star on Wednesday that Megan and Grace had been staying at the Lawrence home she shares with her husband.
Megan had emerged in recent years as the face of the church during a time when the group’s notoriety seemed to swell. She handled many of the various media requests that came pouring in, and was active in social media. She also made regular appearances on “Afentra’s Big Fat Morning Buzz,” one of Kansas City’s most popular morning radio shows.
In interviews with The Star in 2011, she spoke excitedly about the work she was doing as part of the church. She had begun handling some of the duties once carried out by her mother, Shirley Phelps-Roper, and called her membership in the group a “great blessing and privilege.”
After her defection became known on Wednesday, she told The Star:
“We’ve really appreciated the supportive words people have shared with us today. The environment we grew up in was very ‘us vs. them’; it’s been nice to see that the ‘them’ have been overwhelmingly kind — as we’d kind of hoped and suspected.”
Alvarez said Wednesday that she invited Megan and Grace to live with her after Megan contacted her about the possibility of leaving the church last fall.
Since then, she said, she has attempted to help comfort her two cousins while also preparing both for the practical and emotional changes they’ll now face.
“It took me a couple years,” said Alvarez. “I still think about my parents, and it’s still hard that I can’t spend time with them. It’ll be a rough road for a while, but I’m here to talk with them whenever they need it.”
The Westboro church has become notorious over the years for picketing funerals and other events with placards that say “God hates America” because of its tolerance of homosexuality.
The group threatened to picket the funeral of the murdered principal of the Newtown, Conn., massacre, but it was foiled by counter protesters.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the church was protected by the First Amendment from a lawsuit stemming from the picketing of a soldier’s funeral.
In 2010, Megan won a court challenge when a judge overturned Nebraska’s flag-desecration law. She was the plaintiff in a lawsuit saying the law infringed on the church’s right to free speech in trampling the flag during its protests.
But the church’s actions have stirred deep public antipathy. As of Wednesday, nearly 335,000 people had signed an online petition to the White House to have the church declared a hate group.
In an article posted online Wednesday, reporter Jeff Chu wrote that Megan told him her views began to change when she had a discussion with a Jewish man who quoted Jesus to her.
She started to question church placards that said “Death penalty for fags” and “Fags can’t repent.” Megan told Chu she began to feel that didn’t make sense.
Drain said Wednesday that Megan was calling God a liar.
In their joint statement, Megan and Grace said they continue to dearly love their family.
“They now consider us betrayers, and we are cut off from their lives, but we know they are well-intentioned,” the statement said. “We will never not love them.”