Westboro Baptist Church Founder Dead at 84
The Rev. Fred Phelps, Sr., who founded the Westboro Baptist Church of "God Hates Fags" infamy, died Wednesday night, an estranged family member told Topeka's WIBW.
Las Vegas TV station KVVU also reported that Timothy Phelps, one of Phelps's son's who is not a member of the church, is telling media outlets that his father died late last night in hospice care in Topeka, Kan.
Last week, another of Phelps's estranged sons, Nathan, announced on Facebook that his father had been excommunicated from the WBC and was "on the edge of death" in hospice care.
The 84-year-old preacher and disbarred lawyer built a hateful name for himself by establishing the WBC in the early 1990s, and gained international attention when the church picketed slain gay college student Matthew Shepard's funeral in 1998. Under the leadership of Phelps, Sr., his children and grandchildren who comprise the vast majority of the church's congregation made a habit of picketing the funerals of military veterans, carrying inflammatory signs with messages like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and claiming that the death of American troops was God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. The WBC regularly picketed funerals and events which they believed were sinful, often "thanking God" for natural disasters, violent massacres, and even the attacks on September 11, 2001.
After the WBC picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder in 2006, Snyder's family sued the church for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The case ultimately ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court, where an 8-1 majority found in favor of Phelps, citing constitutional guarantees to free speech, even when that speech is outrageous and offensive.
As Phelps's health declined, his daughters Margie Phelps and Shirley Phelps-Roper took over ministerial and administrative duties at the church, though recent reports indicate that the balance of power may have again shifted after a panel of male church elders defeated Phelps-Roper, prompting Phelps., Sr. to call for a "kinder approach to church members" — a position which reportedly led to the reverend's excommunication from the church last August.
One of Phelps's 13 children who is still a member of the church told Topeka's WIBW that "Pastor Phelps is doing just fine" on Thursday morning, though WIBW notes that "could have been a spiritual reference."