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Westboro Baptist Church founder dies

TOPEKA, Kan. – The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., the fiery founder of a small Kansas church who led protests that blamed almost everything, including the deaths of AIDS victims and U.S. soldiers, on America's tolerance for gay people, has died. He was 84.

Daughter Margie Phelps told the Associated Press that Fred Phelps, whose actions drew international condemnation, died around midnight Wednesday. She didn't provide the cause of death or the condition that recently put him in hospice care.

Throughout his life, Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, a small congregation made up almost entirely of his extended family, tested the boundaries of free speech, violating accepted societal standards for decency in their unapologetic assault on gays and lesbians. In the process, some believe he even helped the cause of gay rights by serving as a provocative symbol of intolerance.

Phelps believed any misfortune, most infamously the deaths of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, was God's punishment for society's tolerance of homosexuality. He and his followers carried forward their message bluntly, holding signs at funerals and public events. God, he preached, had nothing but anger and bile for the moral miscreants of his creation.

"Can you preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God?" Phelps asked in a 2006 interview with the Associated Press. "The answer is absolutely not. And these preachers that muddle that and use that deliberately, ambiguously to prey on the follies and the fallacious notions of their people, that's a great sin."

For those who didn't like the message or the tactics, Phelps and his family had only disdain.

"They need to drink a frosty mug of shut-the-hell-up and avert their eyes," his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, once told a group of Kansas lawmakers.

The activities of Phelps' church, unaffiliated with any larger denomination, inspired a federal law and laws in more than 40 states limiting protests and picketing at funerals. He and a daughter were barred from entering Britain for inciting hatred.

But in a major free-speech ruling in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the church and its members were protected by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment and could not be sued for monetary damages for inflicting pain on grieving families.

Yet despite that legal victory, some gay rights advocates believe all the attention Phelps generated served to advance their cause.

Sue Hyde, a staff member at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said plenty of churches and ministers preach a message that attacks gay people. But Phelps and his family had "taken this out on the streets," forcing people to confront their own views and rousing a protective instinct in parents and friends of gays and lesbians.

"It's actually a wonderful recruiting tool for a pro-equality, pro-social acceptance movement," she said. "To the Phelps family, that is not particularly important or relevant. They are not there to save us. They are there to advise us that we are doomed."

Once seen as the church's unchallengeable patriarch, Phelps' public visibility waned as he grew older and he became less active in the church's pickets, with daughters Shirley Phelps-Roper and Margie Phelps – an attorney who argued the church's case before the U.S. Supreme Court – most often speaking for Westboro.

In the fall of 2013, even they were replaced by a church member not related to Phelps by blood as Westboro's chief spokesman.

In Phelps' later years, the protests themselves were largely ignored or led to counter-demonstrations that easily shouted down Westboro's message.

A motorcycle group known as the Patriot Guard arose to shield mourners at military funerals from Westboro's signs. At the University of Missouri in 2014, hundreds of students gathered to surround the handful of church members who traveled to the campus after football player Michael Sam came out as gay.

Phelps' final weeks were shrouded in mystery.

A long-estranged son, Nate Phelps, said his father had been voted out of the congregation in the summer of 2013 "after some sort of falling out," but the church refused to discuss the matter. Westboro's spokesman said this month that Phelps had been moved into a care facility because of health problems.

Asked whether he was surrounded by family or friends at his death, Margie Phelps would only say that "all of his needs were met when he died."

There will be no funeral, she said.

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