Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, died of natural causes last Wednesday, March 19, at age 84.
Phelps founded the church known for its anti-gay picketing at military funerals in 1955 in Topeka, Kan. The controversial church, consisting mostly of those related to Phelps either by blood or marriage, has picketed over 53,000 events, according to CNN. It has drawn attention from the protesting at funerals of those such as Frank Sinatra, Sen. Barry Goldwater, countless military funerals, as well as events such as Lady Gaga concerts. The picketers wield signs stating “God Hates F***” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
Phelps has been referred to by countless Americans as “the most hated man in America,” and his church as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.” When confronted about it in 2006, Phelps commented: “If I had nobody mad at me, what right would I have to claim that I was preaching the Gospel?”
The group began getting widespread attention across the United States in the 1990s when it started relentlessly and ruthlessly protesting homosexuality.
“You’re not going to get nowhere with that slop that ‘God loves you.’ That’s a diabolical lie from hell without biblical warrant,” Phelps told the Religion News Service in 2004.
Many have tried to sue Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church for their destructive words and actions, but the church was protected by the First Amendment. The Washington Post noted the case of the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. Snyder died while serving in Iraq and the Westboro Baptist Church protested at his funeral. Snyder’s family sued Westboro in federal court for “invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” An appellate court later ruled in favor of the church, and the ruling was then upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority: “Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment. Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”
Phelps was born in Meridian, Miss. in 1929. He was ordained as a Baptist minister at age 17 and preached on street corners while taking college classes. He married Margie Simms in 1952 and settled in Topeka shortly thereafter. He graduated from Washburn University law school in the early 1960s and began practicing law, surprisingly taking on many civil rights cases. He gave up his license to practice federal law in federal courts in 1989. He ran several unsuccessful campaigns as a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate and Kansas governor throughout the 1990s.
In 2006, Phelps told CNN about the prospect of protesters at his own funeral, “I’d love it. I’d invite them.” On the contrary, his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roger, said that Westboro will not hold a funeral for Phelps, stating that “We do not worship the dead.”