Topeka In one photo, Margie Phelps has a furrowed brow and is stomping on the American flag at one of the numerous protests her fundamentalist church has held nationwide against the military, gays and the Catholic church.
Another picture reveals a different Phelps. One with a warm smile as she’s presented an award for her work at the Kansas Department of Corrections, where she puts in long hours and is known for her calm demeanor in helping former prison inmates return to society.
To some, Phelps is a study in contradictions. She’s a member of her family’s divisive Westboro Baptist Church and she’s set to go before the U.S. Supreme Court today to represent her church in a case that tests the scope of free speech protections under the Constitution’s First Amendment.
“She doesn’t stand out from any other professional I’ve dealt with,” said Mary K. Vaughn, who worked with Phelps on a housing program in Wichita for ex-inmates. “She knows her business. She does her business.”
Phelps took a leave from her $66,518-a-year job as an administrator on Friday, and state officials would not release any details about her leave.
In the Supreme Court case, she will defend the protests that her church holds at U.S. soldiers’ funerals. The court is to decide whether the church can be sued over the protests and whether the father of a Marine killed in combat can collect $5 million in damages awarded in a federal lawsuit.
The father of Marine Lance Corp. Matthew Snyder of York, Pa., contends the protests are harassment. Media organizations, including The Associated Press, have urged the Supreme Court to side with the Phelpses, despite what they describe as the church’s “deeply offensive” message.
Phelps did not respond to repeated interview requests. Her supervisor, Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz, declined comment and a department spokesman said her co-workers wouldn’t discuss Phelps with The Associated Press.
Top Kansas officials also had little to say. A spokeswoman for Gov. Mark Parkinson declined to comment. Kansas Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt called her employment with the state “an embarrassment” but wouldn’t elaborate.
Phelps, 54, was born less than a year after her father, Fred Phelps Sr., started his church in central Topeka. She went to law school, has a master’s degree in public administration and in the 1980s worked for her family’s law firm.
Then in 1989, she couldn’t practice in federal courts for a year because family members were accused of unfairly questioning judges’ fairness and integrity in legal documents.
In recent years, she’s often represented the church or its members as state and local authorities have tried to limit their activities. Westboro Baptist’s activities inspired laws limiting funeral protests by the federal government and at least 41 states.
In her work with inmates, Phelps started with the Kansas Department of Corrections as a parole officer in 1990. Since 2001, she has been the director of the department that coordinates prisoners’ release and overseeing efforts to give ex-inmates job training and housing.
And several years ago, the Kansas Correctional Association gave Phelps an Employee of the Quarter Award, praising her for having helped create the state’s re-entry program “almost single-handedly.”
“I have always found her to be intelligent and professional,” said Elizabeth Gillespie, who runs the county corrections department and jail in Topeka, and worked regularly with Phelps for several years.
Vaughn agreed, saying Phelps was very knowledgeable about ex-inmates’ issues and came to work with an attitude that said: “I’m here to do a job.” She made sure that Vaughn and her staff knew they could reach her on her cell when she was out of town.
Vaughn acknowledged initially having misgivings about working with Phelps because of Westboro’s activities but added, “It never came up.”
Kansas’ state employees union says it hasn’t heard any complaints about Phelps’ conduct at her job.
Though, even some strong critics of Westboro Baptist question whether the state, as an employer, could — or should — respond to Phelps’ activities outside of work.
The issue arose recently in Michigan. An assistant attorney general now on leave is facing criticism for using his personal blog to target the leader of the University of Michigan student assembly, who’s openly gay.
“The First Amendment permits people to have private speech outside their jobs without being penalized,” said Ken Upton, an attorney with the gay-rights group Lambda Legal. “It is an interesting question: When do you cross the line in your private speech in a way that undermines your job?”