He was 84.
Daughter Margie Phelps said Fred Phelps, whose actions drew international condemnation, died around midnight on Wednesday. She didn’t provide 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 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. “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 US Supreme Court held that the church and its members were protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment and could not be sued for monetary damages for inflicting pain on grieving families.
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.
Asked if he was surrounded by family or friends at his death, Margie Phelps would only say “all of his needs were met when he died”. There will be no funeral.
Phelps was a missionary and pastor in the United States and Canada before settling in Topeka in 1955 and founding his church.