Kansas anti-gay church leader Fred Phelps dies at 84

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fred Phelps preaching from his pulpit in 2002.
Image: Westboro Baptist Church.

Fred Phelps, the founder of the vehemently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, died yesterday aged 84. The church he founded in 1955 became infamous for leading pickets at the funerals of US soldiers, as well as the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man killed in a homophobic attack in 1998.

At funeral pickets and other protests, Phelps and other members of his church held brightly coloured signs with messages including 'God Hates Fags', 'Thank God for 9/11' and 'Thank God for Dead Soldiers'. The picketing of military funerals stems from the postion that God is punishing the United States for its acceptance of homosexuality. Military funerals have not been the only sites of Westboro's protests: the funeral of film critic Roger Ebert and concerts by pop acts Lady Gaga and One Direction — who the church described as "crotch-grabbing little perverts" — have also been targets of Westboro's protests. The Church has sued a great number of local authorities in the United States who attempted to block their demonstrations and the settlements from their First Amendment cases helped fund their activities. In 2011, the Church won a case at the US Supreme Court which upheld their right to demonstrate at funerals.

Other countries were not so keen: Fred Phelps and his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper were banned from entering the United Kingdom in order to take part in a planned protest against The Laramie Project, a play about the death of Matthew Shephard. The UK Border Agency stated the Phelpses were not welcome because of their actions "inciting hatred against a number of communities". The Church has seen a number of widely-reported defections including Megan Phelps-Roper, who used to run Westboro's social media operation before publicly leaving the congregation and publishing an apology on the Internet.

At Oberlin College in Ohio in 2000, Westboro Baptist Church's protests caused gay students to respond with a "kiss-in".
Image: Paul M. Walsh.

Before Phelps's death, he was excommunicated from the Church — whose members are primarily drawn from his family. Nathan Phelps, Fred Phelps's son, posted on Facebook last week announcing his father's hospitalisation and illness: "I’ve learned that my father, Fred Phelps, Sr., pastor of the ‘God Hates Fags’ Westboro Baptist Church, was ex-communicated from the ‘church’ back in August of 2013. He is now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made."

Nathan Phelps continued: "I feel sad for all the hurt he’s caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I’m bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him, and saying their good-byes."