The leader of a small Baptist church in Westboro, Kansas, who made a name for himself by traveling the country to hoist up “God Hates Fags” placards, is dead.
A spokesman for Westboro Baptist Church, whose website address is godhatesfags.com, told CNN today that Fred Phelps, 84, died of natural causes.
Although certainly appalled by Phelps’s tactics and tenacity, the LGBT community came to ignore the man and his family that referred to themselves as a church. But Phelps did manage to secure some historic notoriety for himself in 2011, when the church escaped millions of dollars in liability for picketing outside the funeral of a straight soldier killed in Afghanistan. The U.S. Supreme court ruled, in Snyder v. Phelps, that the free speech clause of the First Amendment protects public speech, which includes speech related to “any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.”
Phelps’s targeting of LGBT people sprung into visibility in 1987 at the March on Washington for LGBT Rights in Washington, D.C. Phelps and a few followers stood on the curb along Pennsylvania Avenue waving giant colorful placards with their bluntly hateful messages. He and his family members picketed the 1994 funeral of San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts after his death from AIDS-related complications.
“Fred Phelps will not be missed by the LGBT community, people with HIV/AIDS, and the millions of decent people across the world who found what he and his followers do deeply hurtful and offensive,” said the Reverend Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “Through his actions, he brought needless pain and suffering to thousands of families, including to military families, at their time of greatest pain and grieving. While it is hard to find anything good to say about his views or actions, we do give our condolences to his family members at what must be a painful time for them.”
In an interview with CBC Television March 18, Phelps’s son Nathan, who was estranged from his father, said he learned from a nephew who recently left the church that Fred Phelps was in hospice care and nearing death. His son left home at age 18, saying there had been considerable violence and dogma in the family.
Nathan Phelps, now 55, said he learned from other family members that the elder Phelps was kicked out of the Westboro church recently when a Board of Elders took control.
– Reported by Lisa Keen