Westboro leader Fred Phelps Sr. dies; his church's funeral protests changed federal law

Fred Phelps Sr., who tested the boundaries of free speech as the founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for its picketing of military funerals and opposition to homosexuality, has died of natural causes. He was 84 years old.

Phelps and other church members publicly blamed tolerance of homosexuals for the deaths of members of the U.S. military, AIDS victims and other individuals—and castigated the dead at their own funerals, the Associated Press reports. His protests led to the adoption of federal laws that created a buffer zone around military funerals and banned protests at the time of the service and immediately beforehand and afterward.

A multimillion-dollar federal jury award against Phelps over emotional distress suffered by the father of a slain U.S. Marine when his son’s funeral was picketed by members of the small Topeka, Kan., church, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 as a violation of Phelps’ right to free speech under the First Amendment.

Phelps, paradoxically, may have helped promote the civil rights of gays and lesbians, some gay rights advocates believe.

After earning a law degree from Washburn University in the 1960s, Phelps a civil rights attorney before he was disbarred in Kansas in 1979. His ethical violations included false statements in court documents and badgering on the witness stand a court reporter he had sued and called a “slut,” in what was described as a personal vendetta by the state supreme court, according to another Associated Press article, the Los Angeles Times (sub. req.) and USA Today.

Phelps called the court corrupt and said he saw his disbarment as a badge of honor. He tried and failed to win election as Topeka mayor, Kansas governor and a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The Westboro Baptist Church, which Phelps founded in 1955, has been characterized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,” USA Today notes.

Promoting a theology based on hatred of gays and lesbians and promising hellfire and damnation was the path to salvation for church members, even if they could not save those who transgressed against their principles, Phelps told an Associated Press interviewer in 2006.

“Can you preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God?” he asked rhetorically. “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.”

A daughter of Phelps told WIBW that no funeral is planned for her father. Margie Phelps is among 11 of Phelps’ 13 children who are said to be lawyers; she represented her father in the U.S. Supreme Court case.

CNN, the Kansas City Star and the Washington Post also have stories about Phelps’ death.

Related coverage:

Topeka Capital-Journal: “Elders excommunicate Phelps after power struggle, call for kindness within church”

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