Fred Phelps Sr., a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose anti-gay picketing at military funerals inflamed the nation and drew international scorn but was protected by the U.S. Supreme Court as an exercise in free speech, died March 19 at a hospice in Topeka, Kan. He was 84.
The Topeka-based organization Phelps founded, Westboro Baptist Church, announced the death on its website but did not provide the cause. The message said he had “Gone The Way of All Flesh.”
Phelps was an ordained Baptist minister, a disbarred Kansas lawyer and, according to a BBC documentary, the patriarch of the “most hated family in America.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent civil rights group, described his Westboro congregation as a “family-based cult” and “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”
The expression of Phelps’ bigotry managed to offend the conscience of the Ku Klux Klan, which staged protests to counter Westboro’s demonstrations at military funerals.
The church’s following consisted mainly of the extended Phelps family and assorted outsiders who shared the founder’s view of an unforgiving, vengeful God poised to destroy a nation of sinners. Phelps dispatched followers to parks and street corners with anti-gay and anti-Semitic placards, some wielded by his grandchildren as young as 7.
His wrath knew few bounds, attacking in profane terms gay people, Jews, minorities, immigrants, politicians, celebrities and church leaders whose more tolerant theology he considered an abomination.
“You’re not going to get nowhere with that slop that ‘God loves you,’” he told the Religion News Service. “That’s a diabolical lie from hell without biblical warrant.”
The group, which has no ties to any official Baptist church body, began drawing wide attention in the 1990s for its vitriolic and relentless campaign against homosexuality. The church’s rise coincided with changing attitudes and policies toward the gay community, including President Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military.
Phelps chose funerals — and eventually military funerals, in particular — as his chief forum for the denouncement of homosexuality. His slogan, “God Hates ----,” was widely repeated at their public appearances and in their promotional material.
He had discerned that occasions of public grieving would draw media attention that would amplify his message. The tactic, which was roundly rebuked, won airtime on evening newscasts and tabloid-style TV talk shows.
Phelps and his followers protested at hundreds, perhaps thousands, of funerals, including those of entertainer Frank Sinatra; Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz.; civil rights activist Coretta Scott King; and the miners who died in the 2006 Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia.
He also picketed the funeral of Fred Rogers, explaining that the children’s TV show host neglected to warn young viewers that sodomy is a sin.
The public outcry was particularly strong when Westboro followers picketed the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard, the college student who was tortured, tied to a fence and left to die near Laramie, Wyo., apparently because he was gay. Horrific in its violence, the killing sparked a national conversation about hate crimes.
In the 2000s, the Westboro group began picketing at funerals for soldiers who died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Phelps argued that God killed American soldiers to punish the country for its tolerance of gays. At memorial services, Phelps and his supporters displayed placards with messages such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
One of the protests, at the 2006 funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died while serving in Iraq, led Snyder’s family to sue Westboro in federal court for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A jury initially awarded the Snyder family nearly $11 million in damages, an amount later reduced by the judge. An appellate court, citing protected speech, ruled in favor of the church. In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld the appellate court’s decision in an 8-to-1 ruling.
“Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”
Reacting to Westboro’s tactics, dozens of states and the federal government passed laws to create buffer areas near the sites of funerals. Phelps and his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, who often acted as a church spokeswoman, were placed on a list of extremists banned from entry into United Kingdom for “fostering hatred which might lead to inter-community violence.”
Phelps said he found comfort in being a pariah. “If I had nobody mad at me,” he once told the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, “what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the gospel?”
Fred Waldron Phelps was born in Meridian, Miss., on Nov. 13, 1929. After his mother died of cancer, he was mostly raised by an aunt. His father, a detective for the Southern Railway, was often away on business.