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Escape from Westboro: Daughter who fled Baptist Church tells of brainwashing

Two of the girls made infamous their 'God Hates Fags' protests have seen the light and quit the family church

Until last year, Megan Phelps-Roper was famous as one of the faces of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), frequently seen yelling anti-gay or anti-Jewish slogans at the funerals of dead servicemen, and then repeating them on Twitter to her 10,000-plus followers. Since the infamous church’s first such protest in 1991, the 27-year-old has carried a “God Hates Fags” placard to 44 states and around 240 cities across the US.

Now, however, she has crossed the picket line. Ms Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of founder Reverend Fred Phelps, was once described as the “future leader” of the church. But she and her 19-year-old sister, Grace, confirmed this week that they had departed the Kansas-based congregation in November. Megan was responsible for the church’s social media presence, and chose to announce her defection with her sister in a post on the blogging platform Medium on Wednesday.

“Up until now, our names have been synonymous with ‘God Hates Fags’,” she wrote, referring to the slogan brandished by the family at its protests. “We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people. 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.”

In an interview accompanying the post, by journalist Jeff Chu, Megan explained that her doubts about the church’s teachings arose after she debated doctrine on Twitter with David Abitbol, an Israeli web developer who writes for the blog Jewlicious. The sisters, who are deciding what to do next, said they still “dearly love” their family. “They now consider us betrayers and we are cut off from their lives, but we know they are well-intentioned,” said Megan.

The WBC congregation consists primarily of the extended Phelps family, and is thought to have no more than 40 members. Fred Phelps, 83, established the church in 1955, but the picketing began around 20 years ago. The group gained worldwide notoriety for protesting at the funerals of US personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming their deaths were God’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality. The church doesn’t reserve all its hatred for gays and Jews; it is also vehemently anti-Catholic and anti-Chinese. It picketed the memorial service for Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, and even threatened a protest at the funerals of Sandy Hook victims.

Megan Phelps-Roper was the subject of a profile in The Kansas City Star in 2011, which described her as “peppy, goofy and, by all accounts, happy”. Her mother, Shirley, is Rev Phelps’ daughter and de facto deputy; she called Megan her “right-hand man”. Megan is said to have had few friends at high school in Topeka, or at Washburn University, from which she graduated in 2008. The profile made clear that few young, single men were eager to join the WBC, and that she would therefore be unlikely to meet a suitable spouse if she remained a member.

The church’s adherents are not entirely cut off from the rest of the world. As well as attending public schools, Megan is reportedly a fan of the Harry Potter books, the band Mumford & Sons, and the TV drama series Dexter. The first Phelps family member to join Twitter, she would post up to 150 tweets per day from her iPhone in her evangelical prime. Kevin Smith – the director of Red State (2011), a slasher movie inspired by the WBC – led a “Save Megan” campaign on Twitter following its release.

Asked about Megan and her sister’s defection by The Topeka Capital-Journal this week, church spokesman Steve Drain quoted from St John’s gospel: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us.”

Chu reported that, since leaving the church’s Topeka homestead in November, Megan and Grace have been trying new things, such as sushi and Ernest Hemingway – Megan enjoyed The Sun Also Rises. They’ve also been sampling alternative churches. “I don’t believe any more that God hates almost all of mankind,” said Megan. “I don’t think that, if you do everything else in your life right and you happen to be gay, you’re automatically going to hell. I don’t believe any more that WBC has a monopoly on truth.”

Megan and Grace are the latest in a string of defectors from the church, which lost 20 members between 2004 and 2011, most in their teens and twenties. Among them was Lauren Drain, Steve’s daughter, who is publishing a memoir, Banished: Surviving My Years In The Westboro Baptist Church, in March. Libby Phelps-Alvarez, who left the WBC four years ago, gave an emotional interview to MSNBC this week, in which she explained she had left the church after it picketed the funeral of a friend’s husband. “We started praying for people to die,” she said.

Shirley Phelps-Roper is said to be undeterred by her daughters’ departure; on Wednesday she welcomed the WBC’s youngest member: her new grandson, Jason.