The Rev. Fred Phelps, founder of anti-gay Westboro church, dies

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The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. - PHOTO: WikiCommons

The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., who founded a Kansas church widely known for its protests at military funerals and hateful anti-gay sentiments, has died.

Phelps, 84, was being cared for in the days before his death at a Shawnee County facility, Westboro Baptist Church spokesman Steve Drain said.

Shirley Phelps-Roper told The Capital-Journal in Topeka this morning that her father died late Wednesday.

Members of the Westboro church, based in Topeka, frequently protest at funerals of soldiers with signs containing messages such as "Thank God for dead soldiers," and "Thank God for 9/11," claiming the deaths are God's punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.

Westboro Baptist, a small group made mostly of Phelps' extended family, inspired a federal law and laws in numerous states limiting picketing at funerals. But in a major free-speech ruling in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the church and its members couldn't be sued for monetary damages for inflicting pain on grieving families under the First Amendment.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights nonprofit group, has called Westboro Baptist Church a hate group. On its website, the SPLC described Phelps as "America's most notorious anti-gay activist. On his 'God Hates Fags' website and in tracts sent from his church compound in Topeka, Kan., Phelps and his congregation — composed mainly of his extended family — pump out reams of anti-gay material, much of it so vulgar that many anti-gay activists complain that Phelps has given them a bad name. Phelps and his followers have crisscrossed the country to picket the funerals of AIDs victims and engage in other, similar protests. But it is his group's picketing of the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq — to tell the world, as Phelps argues, that their deaths are God's punishment for America's 'fag-enabling' ways — that has inspired almost universal revulsion and contempt."

In a pamphlet for the church, Phelps said, "America is doomed for its acceptance of homosexuality. If God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for going after fornication and homosexuality then why wouldn't God destroy America for the same thing?"

In a 1996 press release for a demonstration at a synagogue, Phelps said, "Rabbi Lawrence Karol is an apostate Jew who denies the faith of his fathers, militantly promotes the anal-copulating agenda of Topeka's filthy fag community, and persecutes the Lord's people just as his vermin ancestors did in killing the Lord Jesus Christ and their own prophets and persecuting the apo[s]tles of Christ. Hence they live filthy lives of sexual perversion, greed, violence, and oppression of the Lord's people. This is why the vile Jews of Temple Beth Sholom promote sodomy and persecute Baptists."

The SPLC said Phelps, since 1951, was arrested multiple times for "assault, battery, threats, trespassing, disorderly conduct, and contempt of court. He has been convicted four times, as well as disbarred, but has successfully avoided prison."

Phelps was born in Mississippi in 1929. He dropped out of classes at Bob Jones University in 1947 and made his first news splash in 1952, when, as a street preacher, he was profiled for crusading against "dirty" humor.

Phelps eventually earned a law degree from Washburn University in 1962, and positioned himself as career as a civil rights lawyer. But he was, according to the SPLC, disbarred in Kansas in 1979 for perjury. He ceased practicing in federal courts in 1989, as the result of a plea deal that followed repeated complaints about false testimony.

Phelps began what would become a national anti-gay crusase in the late 1980s in Topeka, where his church was situated in a small compound.

Nate Phelps, an estranged son of Fred Phelps, told The Associated Press in a phone interview earlier this week that members of Westboro voted his father out of the church last summer, apparently "after some kind of falling out."

Nate Phelps, who broke away from the church 37 years ago, said church members became concerned afterward that his father might harm himself and moved him out of the church, where he and his wife had lived for years. Fred Phelps was moved into a house, stopped eating and then was moved into hospice care, Nate Phelps said.

The estranged son was in contact with other family members who are also estranged from the church and said two of them managed to visit his father earlier this month.

With news of the minister's failing health, Kansas' leading gay-rights group urged the gay community to respect the privacy of the "notoriously anti-LGBT" pastor and his family.

Phelps and the members of his church have "harassed" the grieving families of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Kansans and others, Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said in a prepared statement.

But Witt added: "This is our moment as a community to rise above the sorrow, anger, and strife he sowed, and to show the world we are caring and compassionate people who respect the privacy and dignity of all."

Nate Phelps said he has no doubt some people would want to protest his father's funeral but added, "I wish they wouldn't."

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