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1 Westboro founding pastor dies on Fri Mar 21, 2014 12:22 am



Westboro founding pastor dies

Updated: Thursday, March 20 2014, 11:40 AM CDT

The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., the fiery founder of a small Kansas church
who drew international condemnation for outrageous and hate-filled
protests that blamed almost everything, including the deaths of AIDS
victims and U.S. soldiers, on America's tolerance for gay people, has
died. He was 84.

Daughter Margie Phelps told The Associated Press that Fred Phelps
died shortly after midnight Thursday. She didn't provide the cause of
death or the condition that recently put him in hospice care.

Throughout his life, Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, a small
congregation made up almost entirely of his extended family, tested the
boundaries of free speech, 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.

Phelps believed any misfortune, most infamously the deaths of
American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, was God's punishment
for society's tolerance of homosexuality. He and his followers carried
forward their message bluntly, holding held signs at funerals and public
events that used ugly slurs and read "Thank God for dead soldiers."
God, he preached, had nothing but anger and bile for the moral
miscreants of his creation.

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

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 the 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 as a politician. 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

"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."

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