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."




A loud mouth nut job. Nothing good you can say about this creep or his "church".

Steve P

Considering what he did at military funerals I hope his maker settles the score.


Steve P: Right on.


"I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul".

Darwin's choice

This miserable prick didn't suffer long enough. The pain he and his idiot family have caused to the familys of our countrys soldiers is appaling. I hope when the garbage truck comes to pick him up, they put him where he belongs.....

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

Nothing of value was lost.

Correction: An example of not how to live your life was lost. It's a mixed blessing that such an obvious (American) foil to humanity will be rare to find, as well as act as a reminder of how hateful humans can be compared to how civil a society we are for allowing its existence.

If you want to humanely rub in his death, make a donation to a military and/or LGBT organization in his name. After that, let his name quietly drift away into nothingness so he is forgotten as an irrelevant contributor to our species.


Unfortunately his type is not rare. There are ministers abounding who lead their flocks in such directions while raking in millions.
In one community, members of another church picketed a church wearing masks and rubber gloves because opposition demonstrators (might) have AIDS.
there are legitimate examples - like not allowing LGBT to carry signs in St P Day parades though other groups carried signs.
And what about the churches/preachers who blockade women's clinics and accuse every woman entering of killing a baby? Even when some are just seeking screenings, mammograms, etc. There is so much hate in the name of Jesus.


Enjoy that hot spot in hell!


Remember that every Christian can repent at death and still go to Christian Heaven.

Stop It

Thinkagain's PASTOR!!!!!

Don S

So glad to see this SOB die !!! It makes me want to rejoice !! A hater is a hater, no matter the coat he wears !!!!!


How beautifully ironic would it be if a hoard of soldiers protested this guys funeral?


The article says there will be no funeral for him.


exactly....who would do it?


There is a right way and there is a wrong way to spread the Word of God.

Jesus Christ’s own words:

“And He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female,“ Matthew 19:4

God views every individual as He made them.

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts…” Romans 1:26-27

Unlike hypocrites who pretend to care about homosexuals by accepting this perverted lifestyle, in spite of God’s clear teachings against it, true Christians who speak the truth about homosexuality, do so with their best interest at heart. Not only in this life, but for the life to come.

No matter what our society may legislate, homosexuality is a sin. It always has been and it always will be. Like all sin, homosexuality is a choice made from free will.

Jesus not only loved us enough to die for our sins, so that those that believe may be saved, but He also loved us enough that He provided a way for us to overcome our sins, through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

May the Holy Spirit bring about conviction, healing and transformation to the confused transgender and homosexual.

As a Christian, the only thing that matters, is what God the Father thinks – not what the liberal media thinks or what the world in general thinks.

Recognizing sin is the first step to overcoming, no matter which sin is being discussed. But today, many say that homosexual sex is good, right and moral, this is the reason I address it. I attack the sin, never the sinner. God HATES sin, but not people.


thinkagain, you can go to hell with the very wrong Rev. Phelps.


think... why do you keep quoting that tired scripture from Romans about pre-Christ Romans written by Roman Jew Paul?
Be aware that bearing false witness -especially in the name of Jesus - is a cardinal/mortal sin.


John, I like your new screen name, because chuckles is exactly what I do when reading your comments. I can’t help myself, I just find blind ignorance amusing for some reason.

Once again, you erroneously have me pegged as a Catholic like yourself.

Sin is sin, there are no different degrees.


Think... you worship a God who hates? Anything?

"This is my command. I command you to love one another as I have loved you." - Jesus (the 'Father' incarnate)

John 13:34-35

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

It was so nice, he said it twice.
John 15:12 This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.


THINK... note..."so you MUST love one another."


448446 Nothing good? He is not here. That's great! Rammstein/Hallelujah.

God Of Thunder

Thinkagain..You are a true nitwit. Take your bible thumping B.S. out to Utah or down to this church, where that true nitwit preached his hate.

Like the 1st paragraph of the article said...He didn't care what you thought....That's good because with the hate he spilled, I don't care he's dead, and with the way he treated our soldiers and fallen heroes, I hope everyone lines up with signs along his procession, and then to finish, everyone pi**es on his grave...

I have no tolerance for intolerance...


@ God of Thunder...there is no funeral, procession line or anything to line up for as there is no grave site on which to pi**es as we are told in this article. We will all have to be content to use our words to do that. God will have to do the punishing for us. Too bad you didn't read the entire article. You say you hate intolerance, but are you not showing YOUR intolerance a bit yourself?

Dr. Information

Every sinner will make it to his kingdom by repenting before the Lord. Hard to grasp that but it's in the Book.


@Dr Information....and he has LOTS of explaining to do, does he not? When you have done wrong to gain attention here, imagine having to explain it to the boss THERE?


one only needs be 'truly contrite'.


Re: "God determined your fate at the moment of your creation."

Ah, give me that old time pre-determinism.

God in his 'magical' omniscience knew before the beginning of time whether He was goin' to send you to Heaven or H*ll so 'essentially' why bother?

Quite a theological conundrum.

In the tradition of John Calvin, Zwingli and others.

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

It is the conflict of that versus the concept of free will which is instilled at least in the New Testament. It's just...something. I don't know. I'd love to be able to quantify my thoughts better on the subject as I would consider myself to be observant of religion.

If we'd like to take a look even further back at the origin of Abrahamic religions, we should study Zoroastrianism. Considering their beliefs and tenants, the world would have been a much different place if that is what had taken root in the Middle East. Unfortunately it was tough in those times to convince people your religion was best if you weren't willing to slaughter entire populations to prove the point.

"Good thoughts, good words, good deeds."


Die anyone ELSE hear God speak to Abraham?

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

You may also appreciate this regarding the topic you brought up: "Report: Leading Cause Of Death In U.S. Is God Needing Another Angel"