During a life that spanned more than eight decades, Fred Phelps Sr., was many things: a father, a civil rights attorney, a one-time congressional hopeful.
In the end, though, he will be remembered as just one: the architect of a small ministry that became a fountain of anti-gay sentiment, brought national scorn to Kansas and eventually tested the limits of Americans’ right to free speech.
Phelps, whose decades-long work as pastor of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church transformed him into one of the country’s most reviled religious figures, died shortly after midnight Thursday, daughter Margie Phelps told The Associated Press.
He was 84.
Over the past quarter century, Phelps devoted himself to carrying out a loud and fiery attack against not only homosexuality, which he considered an ultimate sin, but those who didn’t share his aversion to it.
His vitriolic faxes regularly found their way to media outlets across the country, and his taunting pickets – often carried out as families stood in a cemetery nearby, mourning a loved one – grew to become, for many, a symbol of unbridled hate.
Born on Nov. 13, 1929, in Meridian, Miss., Phelps graduated high school at the age of 16 and then enrolled at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University. After settling in Topeka with his wife, Margie Marie Phelps, in the mid-1950s, Phelps earned a law degree from Washburn University and embarked upon a career that would become something of a family business.
Phelps first gained wide attention in 1978 when he won a settlement of $19,500 from the Topeka Board of Education for then-16-year-old Evelyn Rene Johnson. Phelps argued that by attending mostly minority schools on the city’s east side, Johnson, who was black, had received an inferior education.
In the ensuing years, Phelps was honored by the Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government for this work in civil rights, and the Rev. D.D. Miller, then the president of the Wichita chapter of the NAACP, once said that Phelps was “likened to Abraham Lincoln, President Kennedy and Martin Luther King in our community.”
But even then, he was a controversial figure.
In 1969, he was suspended for two years for professional misconduct. Ten years later, he was disbarred by the Kansas Supreme Court following accusations that he had made false statements and held a vendetta against a court reporter. Phelps agreed in 1989 to permanently relinquish his license to practice law in federal court.
Following a brief and forgettable foray into politics – he ran unsuccessfully for Kansas governor, the U.S. Senate and Topeka mayor – Phelps devoted himself to the Westboro Baptist Church, a group he had headed since 1955.
In 1991, the church held its first picket at Topeka’s Gage Park, purportedly in response to homosexual activity occurring there, and members later crossed the country to push their message.
With a congregation comprised almost entirely of family members, Phelps continued his crusade against homosexuality into the new millennium, slowly upping the ante in his quest to bring attention to the group’s cause.
In a 1993 interview with The Kansas City Star, Phelps admitted to questioning the manner in which he pushed his message.
“God knows I don’t like the way I’m doing it,” he said at the time. “I have apprehensions and trepidation every day about whether I’m serving the Lord properly and doing it right. … But I don’t know any other way.”
At the same time, Phelps appeared to take pride in the results.
“I must be doing something right,” he told The Star then. “I got every organized and unorganized group in the United States saying they want to kill me.”
During the Iraq war, Westboro Baptist members began picketing the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers, claiming that the deaths were the direct result of the country’s tolerance of homosexuality. The church also was outspoken in the aftermath of various national disasters, including Hurricane Katrina and the Joplin tornado. Most recently, they generated national attention for picketing at the University of Missouri campus following the announcement from Mizzou football player Michael Sam that he was gay.
The group’s pickets – and the backlash they generated – eventually prompted legal response.
Just two weeks after the church protested the March 2006 funeral of Marine Matthew A. Snyder, Congress passed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act, which prohibited protests within 300 feet of the entrance to a cemetery during a funeral.
Snyder’s relatives, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit against the church, and a Baltimore, Md., jury awarded them $10 million. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond overturned the ruling.
In a highly publicized decision stemming from the Snyder case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in March 2011 that the church’s funeral pickets and anti-gay speech were protected under the Constitution.
In 2010, Snyder’s father, Albert, told Time Magazine: “Every time I think of him, I think of (Westboro). I have to think of the shock that was on my daughter’s face when she saw the signs. I have to see the hurt in my dad’s eyes when his grandson gets killed and then he has to go through this.
“To me, what they did was just as bad, if not worse, than if they had taken a gun and shot me.”
Despite the legal victory, however, recent developments have raised questions about the church’s future.
In his final years, Phelps seemed to have grown increasingly removed from Westboro’s day-to-day operations, granting fewer interviews and allowing daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper to coordinate many of its media and picketing efforts.
In 2011, the church reported that 20 members had defected since 2004, three-fourths of them in their teens or 20s. Last February, the group lost one of its most prominent members when Phelps’ granddaughter, Megan Phelps-Roper, left Westboro Baptist citing a growing disenchantment with its practices.
Recently, Phelps’ estranged son, Nathan Phelps, told The Star that his father had been excommunicated from Westboro Baptist last summer for reasons unknown. It was also his understanding, he said, that a group of church elders had won a power struggle with Shirley Phelps-Roper, though she remains with the group.
Public response to Phelps’ health problems in recent days has widely varied. Some have celebrated the idea of the longtime pastor’s demise – a reaction that at least one former member can fathom.
“It’s unfortunate, but I understand it,” said Nate Phelps, who left the church 37 years ago and has been outspoken against it in the years since. “Because I can feel, at least to some degree, the outrage and the anger that he’s caused those people. Where I wouldn’t condone it at all – as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t do anybody any good to act that way – some people will see it otherwise.”
Others have urged empathy and understanding.
“He and his followers showed utter disregard for the privacy and grief of others for many years,” said Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said before Phelps’ death. “This is our moment as a community to rise above the sorrow, anger, and strife he sowed, and to show the world we are caring and compassionate people who respect the privacy and dignity of all.”
Phelps is survived by his wife and 13 children.