Westboro Baptist Church leader dies

Phelps tested free speech with anti-gay protests.
Associated Press
Mar 20, 2014

Fred Phelps did not care what you thought of his Westboro Baptist Church, nor did he care if you heard its message that society's tolerance for gay people is the root of all earthly evil.

By the time you saw one of his outrageous and hate-filled signs — "You're Going to Hell" was among the more benign — you were already doomed.

Tall, thin and increasingly spectral as he aged, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and the Westboro Baptist Church, a small congregation made up almost entirely of his extended family, tested the boundaries of the free speech guarantees by 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.

All of that was irrelevant to Phelps, who died late Wednesday. He was 84.

God is love? Heresy, he preached, and derisively insisted the Lord had nothing but anger and bile for the moral miscreants of his creation. In Phelps' reading of the Bible, God determined your fate at the moment of your creation.

Informing the damned could not save them from eternal fire, Phelps believed, but it was required for his salvation and path to paradise.

And so he and his flock traveled the country, protesting at the funerals for victims of AIDS and soldiers slain in Iraq and Afghanistan, picketing outside country music concerts and even the Academy Awards — any place sure to draw attention and a crowd — with an unrelenting message of hatred for gays and lesbians.

"Can you preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God?" he 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 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.

Margie Phelps did not reveal to The Associated Press on Thursday the condition that put Phelps in hospice care. Asked if he was surrounded by family or friends at his death, she would only say that "all of his needs were met when he died." There will be no funeral, she said.

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 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 with politics. 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."

 

Comments

Contango

Re: "Phelps ran as a Democrat during his brief dabble with politics."

That explains a lot!

deer, coaster, dog, kurtje, 448446, et. al. - he was one of yours! :)

Enjoy, embrace and rejoice in your brethren.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fre...

Darwin's choice

Actually, a clone of them.

Nemesis

Then there's this, from the earlier part of his life that no one seems to notice:

Phelps took cases on behalf of African-American clients alleging racial discrimination by school systems, and a predominantly black American Legion post which had been raided by police, alleging racially based police abuse. Phelps' law firm obtained settlements for some clients. Phelps also sued President Ronald Reagan over Reagan's appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, alleging this violated separation of church and state. The case was dismissed by the U.S. district court. Phelps' law firm, staffed by himself and family members also represented non-white Kansans in discrimination actions against Kansas City Power and Light, Southwestern Bell, and the Topeka City Attorney, and represented two female professors alleging discrimination in Kansas universities.
In the 1980s, Phelps received awards from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government and the Bonner Springs branch of the NAACP, for his work on behalf of black clients.

People are seldom one-dimensional.

chuckles

Unless he took a Republican ballot in the next primary.

Bodega

Good riddance.

Babo

His methods were repugnant to thoughtful people everywhere; but ironically his willingness to pursue his rights to be obnoxious to the Supreme Court of the US protects hateful and obnoxious commentators on matters of public concern (such as his death and St Mary's firing of a music teacher) from liability for their hateful and bigoted statements. In other words all the hateful and bigoted people on the SR owe him a big thank you for protecting them from lawsuits for their comments on matters of public concern.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sny...

wetsu

"Today, Mr. Phelps may have learned that God, in fact, hates no one. Vicious and hate-filled as he was, may his soul find the kind of peace through death that was so plainly elusive during his life."

"I take no solace or joy in this man's passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding "God Hates Freds" signs, tempting as it may be.
He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end."

-George Takei

red white and blue

.

OMG.LOL.WT_

For all the bible thumpers (like think again) out there
Matthew 7:1-3
King James Version (KJV)
7 Judge not, that ye be not judged.

2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Contango

Re: "Judge not, that ye be not judged."

Better put it in context.

In regards to the adulteress, He told her not to do that sh*t again.

It ain't a celestial behavioral 'free pass.'

chuckles

Nobody says it's a 'free pass'. It merely suggest thinking what you say and how you judge for you can be sure the degree of your judgment will be the degree to which you are judged - although it may not come in the same form. But the judgment is not from any God - its' from the people around you.
Thus a man who claimed to be religious realized he dared not have a funeral - anathema to a Baptist. You can't go to Baptist Heaven without a ceremony.

thinkagain

It just goes to show you haven’t been paying attention in my bible classes.

It’s OK though, you’re just another biblical illiterate butchering the true meaning of Matt 7:1-5.

Let’s see what the bible really says about judging:

“The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom, and his tongue talketh of judgment.” (Psa 37:30)

“With my lips have I declared all the judgments of thy mouth.” (Psa 119:13)

“Open thy mouth, judge righteously...” (Prov 31:9)

Jesus commended Simon, “Thou hast rightly judged.” (Luke 7:43)

“Now, thou son of man, wilt thou judge, wilt thou judge the bloody city? yea, thou shalt show her all her abominations.” (Ezek 22:2)

“But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.” (1 Cor 2:15)

“Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?” (1 Cor 6:2)

“Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?” (1 Cor 6:3)

There are many other passages and verses in the Bible about judging. While God is our ultimate Judge, He has also commanded us to judge according to the Word of God.

Now take another look at that famous verse that is so misquoted and put it in its PROPER context. If you are intellectually honest when looking at this passage, you will find that it is actually teaching Christians to judge, not to refrain from judging!

Class dismissed until the next bible butcher crawls out of the woodwork.

Stop It

You used the King James version then went backwards to the old testament.
Typical preacher BS. That book is intended to be translated to each reader. It is fiction as well.

thinkagain

Right on cue…the class dunce arrives. Whenever I mention biblical illiterates, I always like to use you as an example. Thanks

44846GWP

Drop dead.

chuckles

Paul also told the Corinthian women to be silent in church and on matters of faith/religion... and then he baptized Lydia and her household as the first European convent and put her in charge.
Did anyone hear Jesus speak to Paul when he fell off his horse in a drunken stupor?

wetsu

During your next lesson please expand on the "speck" and "plank" portions that you leave out.

thinkagain

Really quite simple actually. In a nutshell, Jesus is illustrating how some examine others without examining themselves.

OMG.LOL.WT_

You all made my point. Whatever the topic or view on the topic, bible thumpers have passage to "prove" their point.

thinkagain

Obviously you have no intention of being intellectually honest.

And yes, I’m fully aware of your point. The dunce cap will fit perfectly on it.

44846GWP

The "bigot, mouth breather" cap fits on you.

kURTje

*ell Contango Phelps is like you! A non-veteran whose opinions do not matter to most thinking people.

Contango

Re: "Phelps,"

Why do you like to tag yourself as a loon?

OMG.LOL.WT_

@kURTje; To whom are you addressing your comment? What does veteran or non-veteran status have to do with anything? @thinkagain and 44846GWP: I just prefer to believe that the world is more than 6000 years old and it is very doubtful if someone built a boat way back when that held all the living species on earth in pairs and before that there was a talking snake in the garden,etc., etc. I am not a bigot but I have, on occasion breathed through my mouth.

Contango

Some denominations, e.g. Christian Science, Unity, et. al, view the Biblical stories and characters not factually but metaphorically.

When seen from that purview, it can take on many interesting and revealing perspectives.

http://www.truthunity.net/wiki/mbd

thinkagain

Pay no attention to 44846GWP, his comment was directed at me. He’s my personal troll boy…follows me wherever I go. Kinda like a pet dog.

It’s interesting that you accusingly say “bible thumpers have passage to "prove" their point”. Yet you constantly bible thump making your “point”.

By the way, I have never seen anywhere in the Bible where it states the age of the earth or how long it existed. Maybe you could teach me for a change?

kURTje

OMG it was not you . Re-read please. You'll know.

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