In a few short years, they've rocketed from obscurity to infamy as they have traveled the country praising the death of U.S. soldiers killed in combat and insisting that God hates gays.
Now, they're coming to Philadelphia.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas congregation classified by the Anti-Defamation League as a hate group, are scheduled to bring their placards with slogans such as "God Hates America," "God Hates Fags" and "Pray for More Dead Soldiers" to protest outside two Catholic schools and a community center here.
"Everybody is talking about it," said Jim Long, 18, student council president at Father Judge High School, one stop on the church's Dec. 20 road show. "I was in New York on Tuesday morning, and when I came back everyone was talking about it."
Westboro has also announced demonstrations that day at Archbishop Ryan High, on Academy Road near Red Lion in the Northeast, and the Jewish Community Center, at Broad and Lombard streets, in Center City.
The church rose to prominence because of a penchant for disruptive protests at funerals for fallen U.S. service members. It claims that soldiers' deaths and other tragedies are divine retribution for what it considers the nation's permissive attitude toward gays.
Church members' antics have spawned a raft of laws aimed at curbing funeral protests, resulting in court challenges that have forced local governments to strike an uneasy balance between preserving freedom of speech and the right of loved ones to mourn in peace.
Since the announcement, Father Judge, at Rowland and Solly avenues in the Northeast, has been bombarded with letters, e-mails and phone calls from infuriated parents and community members, Long said.
The school's president, the Rev. Joseph G. Campellone, told students over the school's TV station this week that "the best course of action is to pray for the group so they stop this message of hate and see this from a different point of view."
"All this group wants is attention," said Ken Gavin, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which runs the high schools. "They want people to get mad and give their message legs."
It appears that the message - or rather, disgust with the message - already has some legs.
A Facebook page started by Father Judge alumni to organize a counterprotest said yesterday that more than 1,100 people were attending.
Some posters on the Facebook page suggested that counterprotesters throw eggs at Westboro demonstrators when they arrive.
"Everyone is mad about it, but our principal says we have to act as Salesian gentlemen," Long said, referring to the school's motto. "We have to protest peacefully."
Michael McArdle, president of Archbishop Ryan, wrote in a letter posted on the school's website that the school will not let the protest disrupt school that day.
"We will adhere to a normal schedule on the day of the planned protest and use this incident as an opportunity to stress the values of respect and nonviolence that are central to Catholic identity and education," McArdle wrote.
Sarah Hammer, 16, a junior at Archbishop Ryan, said students there are baffled.
"The Ryan students are actually completely confused as to why they are coming to Ryan and that their reasoning makes no sense," she said. "Basically we're not worried about it and neither is our staff, and we just can't wait until it passes over and it's behind us."
Efforts to reach someone at the Jewish Community Center last night were unsuccessful.
In a release posted on its website, Westboro, whose members live on a compound along with their leader Fred Phelps, said it planned the protests because of the priest sex-abuse scandal.
"The Catholic Church is the largest, most well-funded and organized pedophile machine in the history of man - and the guilt of the crimes of those rapists is on the hands of every Catholic," according to the release.
It's not clear why these schools were targeted.
Campellone cautioned parents against confronting any protesters and noted that the protest may not even happen.
"Westboro Baptist frequently announces planned protests but does not follow through," he wrote in the letter, which noted that classes that day will proceed as normal.
The church announced a large protest at Temple University in April but never showed.
If they do show this time, several people suggested that the best thing would be to ignore them.
"If nobody is there when they come, that would probably be the best way to show we don't care," Long said. "Let it go in one ear and out the other."