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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Preaching the Hate Gospel

OGDEN, Iowa -- The American soldier's flag-draped casket is set on the gymnasium floor, below the unlit scoreboard, before bleachers crowded with mourners.

They are there for Sergeant Daniel Sesker, the young man known for an infectious laugh and a wide smile, his life taken abruptly by an improvised explosive device outside the Iraqi city of Tikrit.

Outside, a small group of picketers thank God for Sesker's death, talk approvingly of his entrance into hell, and mock the mourners. Amid gusting winds, they struggle to hold up signs that read "Thank God for IEDs" and "God Hates Your Tears."

And back home in Kansas, tucked away in an office over Westboro Baptist Church, Pastor Fred Phelps need only think of what he has done, and he cracks a smile. He has for 15 years directed a campaign unlike any other.

At curbsides, outside funerals and before state capitols, Phelps and his followers have branded the United States a nation of sinners, of people bound to live for eternity in a fiery hell. They have called homosexuals the disgusting face of evil and fallen American soldiers proof of God's wrath.

It is their duty, they believe, to let it be known that God hates you. That you are going to hell. That you are wrong and Fred is right.

Phelps and his followers have been appearing outside funerals of American troops killed in Iraq since last June. They have already attended about 100 -- offending communities and lawmakers so thoroughly that 31 state legislatures have debated bills to curb such protests and the U.S. Congress has passed a law restricting demonstrations at national cemeteries. U.S. President George W. Bush signed the bill on May 29.

Westboro's protesters first gained widespread national attention in 1998. A 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, had been lashed to a split-rail post, pistol-whipped and left in near-freezing temperatures -- all apparently because he was gay. Millions were horrified.

But not Phelps. He and his followers showed up at the funeral with signs bearing their trademark message: "God Hates Fags." They chanted "Fags die, God laughs."

There have been thousands of protests since, not just at the funerals of homosexuals, but also at memorials for victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and West Virginia miners. There have been more than 25,000 such demonstrations, by the church's count.

No army of zealots is waging this campaign. Westboro Baptist has only about 75 members. Those who choose to stay in the Topeka, Kansas, church must be willing not only to live an insular life, but to thrive on it. They must give 10 percent of their earnings to the church and spend thousands more traveling to spread its message. They believe they must alert the world's sinners of their fate, although such people have no chance of going to heaven. They are not doing this to save you -- they are doing it to save themselves.

The Westboro flock is out there all alone, both in their beliefs and in their methods. No other religious group has stepped forward to join them.

In the small sanctuary at Westboro Baptist, the congregation prays that all of God's chosen people will hear the call and make their way to this church. When the last person comes, they believe, Christ will return and the world will end.

The fluorescent lights shine on no crosses or paintings or statues, just a world map and a few signs. "Thank God for Maimed Soldiers," reads one.

The centerpiece of each service is an impassioned sermon by the lanky, 76-year-old Phelps. He often fixates on the media, and on lawmakers' attempts to silence him. He talks of God's hatred, and celebrates deadly events so many others mourn.

"We pray for more tornadoes, we pray for more hurricanes, that Katrina's just a tiny little preamble," he says near his closing. "That's what we pray for."

It is an unseasonably cold day in Ogden, Iowa, outside the funeral of Daniel Sesker. Shirley Phelps-Roper, Phelps' devoted daughter, has an American flag tucked in the waistband of her sweatpants, dragging it on the asphalt as she walks. Westboro's emissaries pose for snapshots like they are at a scenic lookout.

"I enjoy this," Phelps-Roper said.