In 2006, most funerals for fallen U.S. soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan have included a contingent from area motorcycle clubs 30 to 300 of them who stand guard to make sure Phelps doesn't upset the family.
This past Friday, hours before the beginning of a funeral at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno for San Francisco Pvt. Keith Moore who died in Iraq last month in a noncombat-related incident representatives of Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., stood vigil on a berm on the opposite side of the freeway from the cemetery entrance. Phelps and his minions do this at a half-dozen or so funerals around America each weekend, apparently trying to up the hate ante after having gained fame during the 1990s for holding protests at the gravesites of AIDS victims. (Remember "God hates fags"? That was his proudest moment.)
For an hour they held signs announcing the bizarre philosophy that U.S. military deaths in Iraq are God's way of punishing America for not doing enough to discriminate against homosexuals. A dozen or so police officers stood near the cemetery entrance to fend off possible violent incidents an unlikely prospect given that the protesters left their perch more than an hour before Moore's procession arrived. Not to mention the funeral procession led by a 36-motorcyclist honor guard, assembled specifically to deal with the likes of Phelps' crew.
"Our mission is never to have any disruptions to the family. Even if they do show up, we stand with our backs to them. We don't want to give them the presence of mind, we don't want to give them the time of day," says Gus Quist, national safety director of the Patriot Guard Riders, a nationwide amalgam of motorcycle club members organized last year to protect the serenity of military families in the face of Phelps' crusade. As of this week, the Riders count 61,700 members.
As a chaplain gave a graveside service surrounded by thousands of gravestones, a hundred or so of Moore's family members and friends, fellow soldiers, and three dozen flag-holding motorcyclists, the twisted protest of an hour earlier seemed precisely as irrelevant as the Riders intended.