It sounded too good to be true, and it was.
Last month, someone posted on a University of Mississippi message board that local officials in Rankin County, Miss., had launched a covert effort to prevent the Westboro Baptist Church from protesting at the funeral of Marine Staff Sgt. Jason A. Rogers, who was killed in Afghanistan.
The unnamed commenter claimed church members were unable to get out of their hotel parking lot because county pickup trucks were blocking them in. Those few members who made it to Rogers’ funeral were immediately detained by police and questioned for an unrelated matter before being released.
For a moment, it seemed that someone had finally found a way to stop the Westboro Baptist Church from inflicting pain on families whose loved ones died while keeping the rest of us safe.
The story has become a phenomenon online as more and more people talk about how a small town in Mississippi stuck it to the Westboro Baptist Church, but some quick checking revealed it’s all a fantasy.
Local officials told The Rumor Doctor that no protesters were arrested or booked into the county jail during Rogers’ funeral. The county district attorney’s office has not received any complaints from the Westboro Baptist Church.
In fact, some officials said the Westboro Baptist Church didn’t show up at all for Rogers’ funeral.
“They were never here,” said Brian Chalk, police chief in Brandon, Rogers’ hometown.
Had there been any sort of confrontation, the people who turned out to pay their respects to Rogers would have likely gotten to Westboro protesters before the police had a chance to arrest them, said Mark Baker, city attorney for Brandon.
All of that sounds convincing, but The Rumor Doctor’s mission is to turn over every rock and see what creepy-crawly things scurry for cover. In this case, that meant talking to the Westboro Baptist Church.
Church member Jonathan Phelps confirmed that no one from the church was in Mississippi around the time of Rogers’ funeral. He should know because he coordinates with local law enforcement before each of the church’s protests outside of Topeka, Kansas.
“It absolutely never happened,” Phelps said of the rumor. “It’s completely fictional.”
Still, the attention hasn’t hurt the church. Phelps has been posting replies to people who have posted the rumor online, thanking them for “getting our Gospel message out.”
THE RUMOR DOCTOR’S DIAGNOSIS: These Westboro folks are definitely sick. This rumor is false, but it shows just how much people wish that someone would hand the church a resounding defeat.