Obituary: Fred Phelps, Founder of Westboro Baptist Church, Dies at 84

Fred Phelps, who led the Westboro Baptist Church, in 2006. Credit Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. — The Rev. Fred Phelps, the virulently antigay preacher who drew wide, scornful attention for staging demonstrations at military funerals as a way to proclaim his belief that God is punishing America for its tolerance of homosexuality, died here early Thursday. He was 84.

The Westboro Baptist Church confirmed the death, declaring on one of its websites, “Fred W. Phelps Sr. has gone the way of all flesh.” The church did not give a cause of death, but Mr. Phelps had been under hospice care. Mr. Phelps, who founded and led Westboro, a small nondenominational church in Topeka, was a much-loathed figure at the fringe of the American religious scene, denounced across the theological and political spectrum for his beliefs, his language and his tactics.

His congregation, which claims to have staged tens of thousands of demonstrations, is made up almost entirely of his family members, many of whom lived together in a small Topeka compound, although in recent years some of his children and grandchildren had broken with the group. A disbarred civil rights lawyer who had once been honored by the N.A.A.C.P. and who ran for office repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, as a Democrat, Mr. Phelps seemed to accept the criticism if not relish it.

In 2006, Mr. Phelps explained his thinking by describing his analysis of the terrorist attacks of 2001.

“We told you, right after it happened five years ago,” he said, “that the deadly events of 9/11 were direct outpourings of divine retribution, the immediate visitation of God’s wrath and vengeance and punishment for America’s horrendous sodomite sins, that worse and more of it was on the way.” He added: “God is no longer with America, but is now America’s enemy. God himself is now America’s terrorist.”

Fred Phelps
Fred Phelps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mr. Phelps’s tactics prompted a variety of legislative bodies to establish buffer zones to limit the ability of protesters to interfere with mourners at funerals. In 2011, Mr. Phelps won a major legal victory when the Supreme Court ruled, 8 to 1, that his church’s protests were a protected form of speech. The ruling preserved the buffer zones but found that the father of a slain soldier was not entitled to damages for emotional distress caused by the protest.

He married Margie Marie Simms in 1952, and in 1954 the couple moved to Topeka. They had 13 children, 54 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, according to the church’s website. Mr. Phelps established Westboro Baptist in 1955.  He earned a law degree in 1964 from Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, but his legal career was troubled from the start. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which describes Westboro Baptist as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” Mr. Phelps struggled to find people to attest to his good character when he wanted to join the bar, was temporarily suspended for professional misconduct, and was even sued for failing to pay for candy his children sold door to door.

He succeeded in winning settlements in discrimination cases he filed as a civil rights lawyer.

“Most blacks — that’s who they went to,” the Rev. Ben Scott, president of the N.A.A.C.P.’s Topeka branch, said in an interview with CNN in 2010. “I don’t know if he was cheaper or if he had that stick-to-itness, but Fred didn’t lose many back then.”   He was later  disbarred in Kansas, in 1979 for professional misconduct in connection with a lawsuit he brought against a court clerk who he said had failed to have a transcript ready in time. In 1989, after being accused of misconduct by nine federal judges, he agreed to stop practicing law in the federal courts as well.

Jael Phelps picketing Trinity Episcopal Church...
Jael Phelps picketing Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His focus on protests since 1991 was relentless: His church claimed to hold multiple events a day while issuing news releases using coarse and inflammatory language, some of which celebrated the deaths of American soldiers, saying they were God’s way of punishing America for enabling homosexuality.  This week, an estranged son of Mr. Phelps said his father had been excommunicated from his own church. The church did not respond to that assertion. Answering inquiries about Mr. Phelps’s health, however, the church summed up its message, saying:

“God still hates fags, God still hates fag enablers and any nation that embraces that sin as an ‘innocent’ lifestyle can expect to incur the wrath of God. Repent or Perish.”

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