Pastor Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for his virulent anti-gay demonstrations at funerals with signs bearing the church’s slogan, “God Hates Fags,” died Wednesday night, his son Timothy said. He died at a hospice in Topeka, Kan., where his church was based. He was 84.
Phelps, who was trained as a lawyer (although later disbarred), was also known for his litigious efforts to test the limits of free speech. Several of his children are lawyers as well. Their law firm litigated a case that resulted in a 2011 Supreme Court decision that their “pickets” at the funerals of military members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were constitutionally protected speech.
Fred Waldron Phelps was born in Meridian, Miss., on Nov. 13, 1929. He was raised there and in Alabama, living also with an aunt after his mother died when he was 5. After graduating from high school at 16, Phelps chose the fundamentalist Bob Jones University over an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point for his college education, studying there only one year. Caught up in revivalist fervor, he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1947.
Phelps gained his first taste of the national spotlight when Time magazine profiled his preaching activities as an engineering student at John Muir College in Pasadena, Calif., in 1951.
Phelps, the magazine reported, spent his time condemning "sins committed on campus by students and teachers ... promiscuous petting ... evil language ... profanity ... cheating ... teachers' filthy jokes in classrooms ... pandering to the lusts of the flesh."
Soon after the Time profile, Phelps met his future wife, Maggie. They married in 1952 and moved to Topeka two years later, founding Westboro in 1955. They had 13 children, four of whom are estranged from the family.
Although ordained as a Southern Baptist minister, Phelps broke from that denomination shortly after founding Westboro, aligning himself with the tradition of Primitive Baptists. Rebecca Barrett-Fox, a scholar at Arkansas State University who has studied Westboro extensively, has written that in making this transition to a Calvinist theology, Phelps’ group rejected the idea that “salvation was available to all and the practices of Sunday school and missionary work,” in favor of a theology that “understanding comes only to those selected by God to receive it, and it is delivered through scriptural study alone.”
The view that God would punish America for acceptance of homosexuality is commonplace among conservative evangelicals. But in contrast to the mainstream of the religious right, which has positioned itself as a bulwark against what it claims is the nation’s moral decay, Phelps presented himself as a select prophet of America’s doom, and the religious right as part of the problem. When Westboro picketed the 2007 funeral of Jerry Falwell, one of the founders of the modern religious right, the Westboro website described him as the “corpulent false prophet Jerry Falwell, who spent his entire life prophesying lies and false doctrines like ‘God loves everyone.’”
Phelps reveled in Internet fame, as it drew far more attention to him than his actual influence merited, much like the Quran-burning pastor Terry Jones. In fact, in 2010 Phelps attempted to capitalize on Jones’ disrepute (and outdo him), issuing a press release boasting, “WBC burned the Koran once — and if you sissy brats of Doomed america bully Terry Jones and the Dove World Outreach Center until they change their plans to burn that blasphemous tripe called the Koran, then WBC will burn it (again), to clearly show you some things.”
Despite his venomous invectives against LGBT people, earlier in his career Phelps was known for his legal work against racial discrimination. He believed the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which was handed down the same day his family moved to the city, was a sign that he should stay there. As a lawyer, he represented African-American clients in race discrimination suits, and was even recognized by a local chapter of the NAACP for his work. But he was also known for his harassing and frivolous lawsuits, which led to his disbarment from state and federal courts between 1979 and 1989.
Westboro is also known for its anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim views. In addition to its trademark website, God Hates Fags, the church also maintains seven “sister” websites, GodHatesTheMedia, GodHatesIslam, PriestsRapeBoys, SignMovies, BeastObama, Blogs.SpareNot and JewsKilledJesus.
Phelps’ tiny and insular church, made up mostly of extended family, sought the national spotlight in 1998, when Westboro Baptist members demonstrated at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student brutally tortured and left to die tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. While the atrocity of Shepard’s death became a rallying cry for LGBT rights advocates, Phelps exploited it for publicity to draw more attention to Westboro’s activities, and particularly its core claim that God would punish America for tolerance of homosexuality.
At Shepard’s funeral, Westboro members held signs reading “Matt Shepard Rots in Hell” and “AIDS Kills Fags Dead.”
Although the majority of Westboro’s “pickets” have not been at funerals but “on the mean streets of doomed America [sic],” according to its website, it was best known for its funeral “pickets” and for its demonstrations at military funerals. At these funerals, it claims these deaths are God’s punishment for America’s support of LGBT rights, holding signs such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Is America’s Terror.”
Numerous efforts have been made to restrict the area in which Westboro could conduct its pickets, although church members have not been deterred. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act into law, in direct response to the Westboro pickets. The law prohibits protests within 300 feet of the entrance of a national cemetery and within 150 feet of the road leading to the cemetery, for an hour before until an hour after a funeral. States passed similar laws.
In 2008, the father of one fallen Marine, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, won a $5 million judgment against Westboro for infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy after it picketed — in compliance with the law — at Snyder’s funeral. A judgment of that amount probably would have bankrupted the church. But in 2011 the Supreme Court upheld a Court of Appeals reversal of the verdict, holding that the First Amendment protects “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."
In response to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Snyder case, Congress passed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, which expanded the reach of the 2006 law to funeral sites other than national cemeteries. It prohibits “willfully and without proper authorization impeding or tending to impede the access to or egress from” the site of a funeral “and willfully engaging in action that disturbs or tends to disturb the peace of the persons located” at funerals.
Steve Drain, a Westboro spokesman, called these laws “futile, feeble efforts to silence God’s prophets.”
Phelps relished portraying himself as a martyr in the face of widespread hostility to his views. In a 2011 sermon, he recalled the 1951 article in Time and his suspension from college because of his aggressive preaching. He compared it to the “high-handed treatment of Peter and John by the priests and Sadducees,” referring to the religious sect, described in the Book of Acts, that jailed the apostles Peter and John for preaching that, through Jesus, there is resurrection from the dead. “Beloved,” he sermonized, “have we now come full circle in comparing experiences of Westboro Baptist Church with those of the primitive church early on in the first century A.D.?”
On March 16, 2014, Phelps’ estranged son turned LGBT rights advocate Nathan Phelps posted on his Facebook page that his father was nearing death and had been “excommunicated” from the church. Nathan is one of the four Phelps children estranged from the family. He left home in 1976, on his 18th birthday, to escape what he describes as extreme physical, mental and spiritual abuse.
Two days after Nathan Phelps’ Facebook post, Westboro’s Twitter account featured a stream of tweets at news outlets that had covered Nathan Phelps’ Facebook post, excoriating them for spreading rumors and including a link to an FAQ on a Westboro blog. The FAQ was evasive about whether Fred Phelps was merely ill or near death. It also said, in response to a question about whether Phelps had been “excluded” (not “excommunicated”) from the church, that church membership concerns were “private.”
One tweet read, “Enjoyed reading fiction the last couple of days but now it’s back to reality,” using the hashtags #FagsDoomNations and #GodIsYourEnemy! and linking to a photograph of a Westboro demonstrator with a sign reading “God Still Hates Fags.”
Fred Phelps died the next day. It is not clear who his successor at Westboro Baptist will be.