TOPEKA, Kan. — Anti-gay extremist Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church and the “Gods Hate Fags” fundamentalist movement, has died, according to family members.
Phelps, who was 84, died around midnight Wednesday.
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 read “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” God, he preached, had nothing but anger and bile for the moral miscreants of his creation.
Phelps was born in Meridian, Miss., in 1929. In May 1946, at the age of 16, he graduated from high school and was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, but in January 1947, Phelps abandoned plans to go to West Point and enrolled at Bob Jones University, a conservative religious college. He dropped out after only three semesters.
At age 17, Phelps was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister.
In 1951, he earned a two-year degree from John Muir College. While at John Muir, Phelps was profiled in Time magazine for preaching against “sins committed on campus by students and teachers … promiscuous petting … evil language … profanity … cheating … teachers’ filthy jokes in classrooms … [and] pandering to the lusts of the flesh”.
He met his wife, Margie Simms, after he delivered a sermon in Arizona, and they were married in 1952.
Phelps later went on to become an award-winning civil rights attorney after earning his law degree from Washburn University in 1964.
Eventually he was disbarred from the Kansas Supreme Court in 1979 and lost his license to practice law in federal courts in 1989. It was shortly thereafter that Phelps and his family launched their crusade against gays, when it sought a crackdown on homosexual activity at a local park six blocks from the church in 1991.
Phelps and his church came into the national spotlight in 1998, when it picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured near Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998, then tied to a fence and left to die.
After that he gained world-wide notoriety for picketing the funerals of U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The activities of Phelps’ church, unaffiliated with any larger denomination, also 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.
Phelps’ final weeks were shrouded in mystery. A long-estranged son, Nathan 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.
Throughout Phelps’ life, Westboro remained a small congregation of 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.
In a 2005 interview, Phelps said that Christians who refuse to condemn gay people as he did are “all going to hell.”
“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.”