For all of her adult life and much of her childhood, Megan Phelps-Roper picketed funerals, condemned gays, and said she earnestly believed that most Americans were destined for hell.
But on Wednesday, the 27-year-old granddaughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps publicly said goodbye to all that.
“We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people,” Megan and her sister Grace wrote in a statement announcing their split from the church. “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.”
The Westboro Baptist Church may be the most controversial religious group in the country. By some accounts, it’s not a religious group at all — the Southern Poverty Law Center has called it “the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” and a White House petition urging the government to label it as such earned more than 330,000 signatures in January.
For several years, Phelps-Roper was one of the WBC’s loudest and most believable defenders. By age 25, she led social media efforts for the church, gave hundreds of media interviews and tweeted regular Bible verses and inspirational quotes to an audience of more than 10,000. She briefly coordinated WBC protests at funerals and disaster sites, the church’s most reviled activity.
But something changed, Phelps-Roper told journalist Jeff Chu, when a Jewish friend she met online challenged the WBC’s teaching on homosexuality. Didn’t Jesus say to “let he who is without sin cast the first stone?,” he asked.
And so Phelps-Roper — who once told the Kansas City Star the church was the only place she’d seen “people who serve God in truth” — finally began to doubt.
First she stopped carrying signs that said “Death Penalty for Fags.” Then she began researching Biblical theory at a Kansas library. Eventually convinced that her grandfather might have missed something, Megan and her sister Grace left in November, the Star reports, moving in with a cousin who also walked away from the church. They did not make the defection public until this week.
Phelps-Roper has not publicly announced what she plans to do next, besides saying she’d like to help people. That has charmed many of her critics, who called her “brave” and “wonderful” in Twitter messages responding to her statement. One man, an LGBT activist who previously sparred with Phelps-Roper on Twitter, said “I’d love to open up a dialogue w/u … U have our support in this tough time!”
The WBC, for its part, has not been so forgiving.
“If they continue with the position that they have, those two girls, yeah, they’re going to hell,” church spokesman Steve Drain told the Star.
On Facebook, Drain is listed as Phelps-Roper’s brother.