September 2, 2014

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Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps Sr. dies at 84

The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. preaches at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. preaches at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., the fiery founder of a small Kansas church who led outrageous and hate-filled 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 such a provocative symbol of intolerance.

Phelps believed any misfortune, most infamously the deaths of American 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 held signs at funerals and public events that used ugly slurs and read “Thank God for dead soldiers.” 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 even 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 notorious 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 would only obliquely acknowledge this month that Phelps had been moved into a care facility because of health problems.

Asked if 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.

Fred Waldron Phelps was born in Meridian, Miss., on Nov. 13, 1929. He was raised a Methodist and once said he was “happy as a duck” growing up. He was an Eagle Scout, ran track and graduated from high school at age 16.

Selected to attend the U.S. Military Academy, Phelps never made it to West Point. He once said he went to a Methodist revival meeting and felt the calling to preach. Ordained a Baptist minister in 1947, he met his wife after he delivered a sermon in Arizona, and they were married in 1952.

Phelps was a missionary and pastor in the western United States and Canada before settling in Topeka in 1955 and founding his church. He earned his law degree from Washburn University in Topeka in 1964, focused on civil rights issues.

But in 1979, the Kansas Supreme Court stripped him of his license to practice in state courts, concluding he’d made false statements in court documents and “showed little regard” for professional ethics. He called the court corrupt and insisted he saw its action as a badge of honor. He later agreed to stop practicing in federal court, too.

Westboro remained a small church throughout his life, with less than 100 members, most related to the patriarch or one of his 13 children by blood or marriage. Its website says people are free to visit weekly services to get more information, though the congregation can vote at any time to remove a member who they decide is no longer a recipient of God’s grace.

The church’s building in central Topeka is surrounded by a wooden fence, and family members are neighbors, their yards enclosed by the same style of fence in a manner that suggests a sealed-off compound.

Most of his children were unflinchingly loyal, with some following their father into the law. While some estranged family members reported experiencing severe beatings and verbal abuse as children, the children who defended their father said his discipline was in line with biblical standards and never rose to the level of abuse.

Phelps could at times, in a courtly and scholarly manner, explain his religious beliefs and expound on how he formed them based on his reading of the Bible. He could also belittle those who questioned him and professed not to care whether people liked the message, or even whether they listened. He saw himself as “absolutely 100 percent right.”

“Anybody who’s going to be preaching the Bible has got to be preaching the same way I’m preaching,” he said in 2006.

Despite his avowedly conservative views on social issues, and the early stirrings of the clout Christian evangelicals would enjoy within the Kansas Republican Party, Phelps ran as a Democrat during his brief dabble as a politician. He finished a distant third in the 1990 gubernatorial primary, and later ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and Topeka mayor.

It was about that time that Westboro’s public crusade against homosexuality began. The protests soon widened and came to include funerals of AIDS victims and any other event that would draw a large crowd, from concerts of country singer Vince Gill to the Academy Awards.

He reserved special scorn for conservative ministers who preached that homosexuality was a sin but that God nevertheless loved gays and lesbians. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell died in 2007, Westboro members protested at his funeral with the same sorts of signs they held up outside services a decade earlier for Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death in 1998.

“They’re all going to hell,” Phelps said in a 2005 interview of Christians who refuse to condemn gay people as he did.

It wasn’t just the message, but also the mocking tone that many found to be deliberately cruel. Led by Phelps, church members thanked God for roadside explosive devices and prayed for thousands more casualties, calling the deaths of military personnel killed in the Middle East a divine punishment for a nation it believed was doomed by its tolerance for gay people.

State and federal legislators responded by enacting restrictions on such protests. A Pennsylvania man whose 20-year-old Marine son died in 2006 sued the church after it picketed the son’s funeral and initially won $11 million. In an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2011 that the First Amendment protects even such “hurtful” speech, though it undoubtedly added to the father’s “already incalculable grief.”

“The Westboro Baptist Church is probably the vilest hate group in the United the State of America,” Heidi Beirich, research director for the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Associated Press in July 2011. “No one is spared, and they find people at their worst, most terrible moments of grief, and they throw this hate in their faces. It’s so low.”

  • B4CE

    Thank God!

  • John Davidson

    I think that anybody who supports our military should be protesting at his funeral. Also why would the Chronicle waist this much space on the internet over this piece of —-.

    • Phil Blank

      Cause every major news source did too.
      Besides, it came from AP, not from the Chronicle, they just reprinted it.

    • HankKwah

      They’re not having a funeral for him. Which is a da*n shame.

    • Michael

      actually, I was going to comment that not one GI would be wasting their breath protesting his death…

      if anything, rejoicing it.

    • Michael

      funny his anti-gay stance was over shadowed by his stance against death military personnel. Love the sinner, hate the sin – in this case love the GI, hate the gov’t that gives the GI his orders.

    • Sean MacNair

      I don’t think the Chronicle waisted any space. Now whether they wasted any space, that’s another story.

      • John Davidson

        Thank you for the correction.

      • golfingirl

        Why is everybody misspelling the word “waste?”

  • Jeff

    What a GREAT DAY for mankind !!! If it wasn’t so far I would love to go picket his funeral.

  • SniperFire

    He won a third of the votes in the Democrat primary for Senator. LOL

  • 2muchgovernment

    I have a feeling that there will be picketers. At least we can all hope! That guy was nuts and so are his followers.

  • jq

    Someone hire a bus to take some folks to protest. Let his family be as bothered as they bothered others. Hopefully without him that will die out.

  • Phil Blank

    Fred Phelps Sr., a fierce opponent of homosexuality whose protests at military funerals prompted two federal laws, died early Thursday and was sent straight to hell, his daughter Margie Phelps says.

    • HankKwah

      Love one another as I have so loved you.

      Phelps pretty much failed that, didn’t he? There will definitely be some atoning in the afterlife for his actions here. Can only hope that someone as horrible as he was to the families of our deceased military and to gays is somewhere with the flames licking at his body.

  • Larry Crnobrnja

    This pretty much sums it up…

  • Simon Jester

    In the immortal words of Clarence Darrow; “I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.”

    Good Riddance.

  • John Lawson

    There is a right way and there is a wrong way to spread the Word of God.

    Jesus Christ’s own words:

    “And He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female,“ Matthew 19:4

    God views every individual as He made them.

    “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts…” Romans 1:26-27

    Unlike hypocrites who pretend to care about homosexuals by accepting this perverted lifestyle, in spite of God’s clear teachings against it, true Christians who speak the truth about homosexuality, do so with their best interest at heart. Not only in this life, but for the life to come.

    No matter what our society may legislate, homosexuality is a sin. It always has been and it always will be. Like all sin, homosexuality is a choice made from free will.

    Jesus not only loved us enough to die for our sins, so that those that believe may be saved, but he also loved us enough that He provided a way for us to overcome our sins, through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    May the Holy Spirit bring about conviction, healing and transformation to the confused transgender and homosexual.

    As a Christian, the only thing that matters, is what God the Father thinks – not what the liberal media thinks or what the world in general thinks.

    Recognizing sin is the first step to overcoming, no matter which sin is being discussed. But today, many say that homosexual sex is good, right and moral, this is the reason I address it. I attack the sin, never the sinner. God HATES sin, but not people.

  • 123Railroaded

    I want to know where he will be taking his dirt nap so I can go piss on his grave !

  • Phil Blank

    Now I remember him, he is that dead man with the flying killer silver spheres in the movie “Phantasm”!