Archive for Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fred Phelps Sr., founder of Westboro Baptist Church, dead at 84

March 20, 2014, 10:21 a.m. Updated March 20, 2014, 11:35 a.m.


FILE - In a March 19, 2006 file photo, Pastor Fred Phelps preaches at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.

FILE - In a March 19, 2006 file photo, Pastor Fred Phelps preaches at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.

In this June 6, 2009 file photo, protesters from Rev. Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church demonstrate during funeral services for Dr. George Tiller at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kan. In an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the group's protests were protected by the First Amendment. The father of a Marine killed in Iraq sued after they picketed his son's 2006 funeral service.

In this June 6, 2009 file photo, protesters from Rev. Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church demonstrate during funeral services for Dr. George Tiller at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kan. In an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the group's protests were protected by the First Amendment. The father of a Marine killed in Iraq sued after they picketed his son's 2006 funeral service.

— The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., the fiery founder of a small Kansas church who drew international condemnation for outrageous and hate-filled protests that blamed almost everything, including the deaths of AIDS victims and U.S. soldiers, on America's tolerance for gay people, has died. He was 84.

Daughter Margie Phelps told The Associated Press that Fred Phelps died shortly after midnight Thursday. She didn't provide the cause of death or the condition that recently put him in hospice care.

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 used ugly slurs and read "Thank God for dead soldiers." God, he preached, had nothing but anger and bile for the moral miscreants of his creation.

"Can you preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God?" Phelps asked in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. "The answer is absolutely not. And these preachers that muddle that and use that deliberately, ambiguously to prey on the follies and the fallacious notions of their people, that's a great sin."

For those who didn't like the message or the tactics, Phelps and his family had only disdain. "They need to drink a frosty mug of shut-the-hell-up and avert their eyes," his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, once told a group of Kansas lawmakers.

The activities of Phelps' church, unaffiliated with any larger denomination, 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.

Yet despite that legal victory, some gay rights advocates believe all the attention Phelps generated served to advance their cause.

Sue Hyde, a staff member at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said plenty of churches and ministers preach a message that attacks gay people. But Phelps and his family had "taken this out on the streets," forcing people to confront their own views and rousing a protective instinct in parents and friends of gays and lesbians.

"It's actually a wonderful recruiting tool for a pro-equality, pro-social acceptance movement," she said. "To the Phelps family, that is not particularly important or relevant. They are not there to save us. They are there to advise us that we are doomed."

Once seen as the church's unchallengeable patriarch, Phelps' public visibility waned as he grew older and he became less active in the church's pickets, with daughters Shirley Phelps-Roper and Margie Phelps — an attorney who argued the church's case before the U.S. Supreme Court — most often speaking for Westboro. In the fall of 2013, even they were replaced by a church member not related to Phelps by blood as Westboro's chief spokesman.

In Phelps' later years, the protests themselves were largely ignored or led to counter demonstrations that easily shouted down Westboro's message. A motorcycle group known as the Patriot Guard arose to shield mourners at military funerals from Westboro's notorious signs. At the University of Missouri in 2014, hundreds of students gathered to surround the handful of church members who traveled to the campus after football player Michael Sam came out as gay.

Phelps' final weeks were shrouded in mystery. A long-estranged son, Nate 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. Westboro's spokesman would only obliquely acknowledge this month that Phelps had been moved into a care facility because of health problems.

Fred Waldron Phelps was born in Meridian, Miss., on Nov. 13, 1929. He was raised a Methodist and once said he was "happy as a duck" growing up. He was an Eagle Scout, ran track and graduated from high school at age 16.

Selected to attend the U.S. Military Academy, Phelps never made it to West Point. He once said he went to a Methodist revival meeting and felt the calling to preach. Ordained a Baptist minister in 1947, he met his wife after he delivered a sermon in Arizona, and they were married in 1952.

Phelps was a missionary and pastor in the western United States and Canada before settling in Topeka in 1955 and founding his church. He earned his law degree from Washburn University in Topeka in 1964, focused on civil rights issues.

But in 1979, the Kansas Supreme Court stripped him of his license to practice in state courts, concluding he'd made false statements in court documents and "showed little regard" for professional ethics. He called the court corrupt and insisted he saw its action as a badge of honor. He later agreed to stop practicing in federal court, too.

Westboro remained a small church throughout his life, with 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.

Phelps could at times, in a courtly and scholarly manner, explain his religious beliefs and expound on how he formed them based on his reading of the Bible. He could also belittle those who questioned him and professed not to care whether people liked the message, or even whether they listened. He saw himself as "absolutely 100 percent right."

"Anybody who's going to be preaching the Bible has got to be preaching the same way I'm preaching," he said in 2006.

Despite his avowedly conservative views on social issues, and the early stirrings of the clout Christian evangelicals would enjoy within the Kansas Republican Party, Phelps ran as a Democrat during his brief dabble as a politician. He finished a distant third in the 1990 gubernatorial primary, and later ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and Topeka mayor.

It was about that time that Westboro's public crusade against homosexuality began. The protests soon widened and came to include funerals of AIDS victims and any other event that would draw a large crowd, from concerts of country singer Vince Gill to the Academy Awards.

He reserved special scorn for conservative ministers who preached that homosexuality was a sin but that God nevertheless loved gays and lesbians. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell died in 2007, Westboro members protested at his funeral with the same sorts of signs they held up outside services a decade earlier for Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death in 1998.

"They're all going to hell," Phelps said in a 2005 interview of Christians who refuse to condemn gay people as he did.

It wasn't just the message, but also the mocking tone that many found to be deliberately cruel. Led by Phelps, church members thanked God for roadside explosive devices and prayed for thousands more casualties, calling the deaths of military personnel killed in the Middle East a divine punishment for a nation it believed was doomed by its tolerance for gay people.

State and federal legislators responded by enacting restrictions on such protests. A Pennsylvania man whose 20-year-old Marine son died in 2006 sued the church after it picketed the son's funeral and initially won $11 million. In an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2011 that the First Amendment protects even such "hurtful" speech, though it undoubtedly added to the father's "already incalculable grief."

"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."


Leslie Swearingen 4 years ago

No matter how we think and feel about this man, we should remember that his family loved him and will miss him.

Let us not be hateful in this time of their mourning, but respect it for what it is, regardless of what they have done.

We are only responsible for what we do. This man has now passed over and I will not say if he is in Heaven or Hell, or even if there are such places as some seem to think they must be, it is not my place to know that.

In my opinion Heaven and Hell are spiritual places not physical and I have no idea what they are like.

Natalya McCourt 4 years ago

If only they had been so respectful to the families of the dead whose funerals THEY picketed.

The're hateful as all get out when others are trying to mourn. Why should they get more than they give to others?

Kim Murphree 4 years ago

Your first two paragraphs echo my thoughts exactly.

Kyle Neuer 4 years ago

His family is planning on protesting at his funeral after his excommunication. Phooey on him and his family. I hope they think ahead and install a dance floor on his grave.

3 years, 12 months ago

Your living in a dream world Leslie...You somehow have come to the conclusion that all families love their family members and will miss them... wow! A fairy tale...especially so with this family. This man knew was his best friend. You don't miss people like that Leslie. If your a family member of such perverseness you breath a big sigh of relief! I and many others have paid a high price to be rid of such sentimental delusions.

Kim Murphree 4 years ago

Zachariah....perfect quote, thank you.

Fred Whitehead Jr. 4 years ago

Good thoughts, Leslie. But we must also not forget that those of his "family" congtributed greatly to his hateful, disgusting crusade and that these miscreants are still with us. The very idea that this sort of reprehensinble entity could evolve and flourish in Kasas is almost unbearable.

My hope is that they all will fade away and we will be rid of the stain of this horrible disgusting "church" , that it will evaporate into the darkness and that their followers will disburse and disintigrate. SOMEONE had to be funding this debauched enterprise.

Shane Rogers 4 years ago

I wonder if members of the Westboro Church will be picketing his funeral as well...

Robert Baker 4 years ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

Jason Johnson 4 years ago

I think we should petition our government to declare today a National Holiday, work off and everything. Fireworks, the whole she-bang

Jim Slade 4 years ago

I'm just disappointed he didn't die of AIDS.

Ron Holzwarth 3 years, 12 months ago

Is there any proof that he didn't?

Clipped from the article:
"She didn't provide the cause of death or the condition that recently put him in hospice care."

Cait McKnelly 4 years ago

The really sad thing about this is that Phelps actually did a great deal of good back in the '60's as a civil rights attorney. His later life so overwhelmed that fact that people tend to forget it.
I am not justifying what he did in any way. I am saying he was a complex human and, if there is a God, he is the one that will have to take responsibility for his life before that God.
In the end, he actually did more FOR LGBTQ rights than he accomplished against them. His methods were vile and so over the top, it was those very methods that accomplished exactly the opposite of what he said he wanted.
Along the way, what he did pointed out the evil and hatred of OTHER so called "preachers", making statements just as vile.
It's twisted and it's strange, but he actually did a lot of unintentional good.

Thomas Bryce Jr. 4 years ago

Exactly, Cait. I think what he did best(unintentionally, of course) was to point out just how Ugly and Destructive Hatred and Intolerance of your fellow Human being Really is.

Robert Baker 4 years ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

Sam Crow 3 years, 12 months ago

Freedom of speech has nothing to do with vulgar comments to a newspaper web site.

Kevin Elliott 3 years, 12 months ago

I suggest civics classes to better understand what the first amendment means.

As disgusting as he was, free speech protected his vile point of view when he presented it on public land.

It does not give you a right to go on private property and say whatever you want. A website is private property of the owner just the same as if was allowed in your house you could tell me to quit saying it or make me leave your home.

Chris Scafe 4 years ago

I'm not going to celebrate Phelps's death, but it is a nice feeling knowing that I will never again see him picketing any event. I hope his church disintegrates in his absence.

Randall Uhrich 4 years ago

What a despicable human being. His behavior exhibits the classic hallmarks of being a closet queen, which would explain his self-hatred and over-the-top rhetoric. I hope he didn't die thinking that he would be welcomed in Heaven.

Christine Anderson 4 years ago

Well well. The first two commenters have some very, very good points. So does Zach. is really hard for me not to get a kick out of this. I've done some really disgusting stuff in my lifetime, but this guy.....There was nothing "Christian" about what he preached.

Christine Anderson 4 years ago

I wonder if his son Nate, and the others who defected from the Phelps family are not feeling a sense of their chains being broken right about now.

Phil Minkin 4 years ago

" I have never killed anyone, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction." -- Clarence Darrow (often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain)

Joe Blackford II 4 years ago

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias" in Miscellaneous and Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: W. Benbow, 1826)

Andrew Stahmer 4 years ago

I believe Fred Phelps was a man that spent a good portion of his life trying to bury his self-loathing. I think he was horrified of himself, and so attacked others as a distraction; as a release to deal with parts of himself he detested. But in the end he lost everything and died alone; no mercy, no compassion.

Beth Ennis 3 years, 12 months ago

As a Christian, I am suppose to love my enemies. I said a prayer for him and have moved on. I hope no one pickets his funeral. I would rather there not have been any media attention at all. Let him just die quietly, not for his sake, but for the sake of others. I've attended too many soldiers funerals over the last 10 years, but I refuse to feel hatred for this group. In fact, I thank them because if it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have the patriot guard, which is a wonderful organization who brings so much pride when you see them by the hundreds in a military funeral parade. They also have been one of the elements that have moved gay rights further along. God can use evil for good and I think he has with them. It is now between God and Mr. Phelps. I just wonder if the reason he was excuminicated is because he finally saw the light and the error of his ways. We will never know and I'm not going to spend anymore time thinking about him.

Jeanne Swearingen 3 years, 12 months ago

The man did not change overnight but by every choice he made which should give us all pause and make us ponder that we are not immune from such changes, and they can be so small and so subtle they are ignored.

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