Founder of controversial Westboro Baptist Church dies

Topeka, Kansas (USA TODAY) -- Fred Phelps Sr., a fierce opponent of homosexuality whose protests at military funerals prompted two federal laws, died Wednesday night, a family member tells local media outlets Topeka Capital-Journal, WIBW and Kansas First News. He was 84.

Phelps headed the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, and was occasionally involved in politics. He gained national prominence for organizing protests against gays and Jews, including at military funerals.

MORE: Phelps deathbed reports spark celebration from foes

He led protesters outside the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was killed in October 1998 for what a later trial determined was because he was gay. President Obama signed a law in October 2009 making crimes against perceived sexual orientation a hate crime.

The Anti-Defamation League called the church "a small, virulently homophobic, anti-Semitic hate group" and the Southern Poverty Law Center called it "arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America."

The group also protested military funerals by saying soldiers deserved to die for defending an irreversibly corrupt government.

President George W. Bush signed a law in May 2006 that established a 150-foot zone prohibiting picketing at military funerals within an hour of the service. Obama signed a similar law in August 2012 that increased the buffer to 300 feet and doubled the prohibition to within two hours of the service.

Phelps was himself an occasional candidate. In the Kansas Democratic U.S. Senate primary in 1992, Phelps got 31% of the vote against Gloria O'Dell, who got 69%. She eventually lost to Republican Sen. Bob Dole.

Phelps, a graduate of Washburn University law school, was disbarred from Kansas state courts in 1979 after badgering a witness in a civil case in what the state Supreme Court called "a personal vendetta."

Nathan Phelps told The Associated Press in a phone interview Sunday night that members of Westboro voted his father out of the church last summer, apparently "after some kind of falling out."

Nathan, who broke away from the church 37 years ago, said church members became concerned afterward that his father might harm himself and moved him out of the church, where he and his wife had lived for years. Fred Phelps was moved into a house, stopped eating and since has been moved into hospice care, Nathan Phelps said.

The estranged son is in contact with other family members who are also estranged from the church and said two of them managed to visit his father earlier this month.

A church spokesman declined comment Sunday on whether Fred Phelps had been voted out of the church, and said Westboro Baptist Church doesn't have a designated leader.

Nathan Phelps said he has no doubt some people would want to protest his father's funeral but added, "I wish they wouldn't."

Before founding the Westboro Church, Phelps was a disbarred lawyer who founded the Phelps Chartered law firm.

He married Margie M. Phelps in May 1952. He leaves 13 children and 54 grandchildren.

CBS station KCTV Kansas City contributed to this report.


To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment