03/03/2011 02:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

20-Year-Old Westboro Baptist Church Member Balances College, Protests

Washburn University sophomore Zach Phelps-Roper spent his Wednesday morning like many other college students: glued to his cell phone.

But he wasn't getting texts about last night's party -- he was waiting for a ruling from the Supreme Court.

Phelps-Roper, 20, is a member of the Westboro Baptist Church -- a Topeka, Kan., group known for picketing soldiers' funerals across the country and its stance condemning homosexuality.

The Case

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects these funeral protests, despite emotional repercussions for grieving families. The Westboro Baptist Church -- led by Phelps-Roper's grandfather Rev. Fred Phelps -- picketed Lance Cpl. Matthew Synder's March 2006 funeral in Westminster, Md.

Synder died in Iraq earlier that year. The group believes U.S. military deaths represent God's punishment for the country's tolerance toward homosexuality. Snyder's father, Albert Snyder, sued church members, accusing them of intentionally inflicting emotional distress.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church, 8-1. Phelps-Roper's aunt, Margie Phelps, argued the case.

Growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church

Phelps-Roper has been going to protests his entire life.

He says his mother and church spokeswoman, Shirley Phelps-Roper, used to wheel him around in a stroller at pickets before he could walk and he began to hold signs when he was three or four.

He protested at the Snyder funeral when he was "14 or 15," but doesn't remember much about it, besides windy weather.

He's been to a lot of soldiers' funerals, he said.

Phelps-Roper also attended the Supreme Court arguments in October. "It was amazing," he said of the media attention. But today's decision was "awesome."

"When that Supreme Court decision was passed down, those Supreme Court judges didn't listen to their feelings about the case," he said. "They listened to the law."

Phelps-Roper said this decision proves his family's case for protesting military funerals. "We have a legitimate right to do that, and you can't argue with that," he said.

He said the Supreme Court justices were influenced both by the law and God. "Nothing happens if it doesn't happen by the hand of the Lord," he said. "He held the heart of those judges in his hand. He kept them from doing something foolish, from breaking their oath."

Life as usual

But otherwise, Phelps-Roper said Wednesday was a typical one for him.

He woke up, ate breakfast, prayed, went to school -- Washburn is three miles from his house -- came home around noon to ready for another picket at 1 p.m. The nursing major said he takes only morning classes.

He said his family has protested at two sites every day for years, including a local Episcopal church.

Phelps-Roper said he's an introvert who doesn't have friends outside his church. "I can do what I have to do to serve the Lord and get an education," he said. "I don't spend my time hanging out at school all day."

Other Washburn University students didn't come up to him Wednesday to ask about it, he said.
He guessed his peers didn't know about the decision yet.

"Or don't know who I am," he said, laughing.