TOPEKA, Kan. (CBS/AP) — The man who founded the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, which is widely known for picketing military funerals and anti-gay protests, has died.
Daughter Margie Phelps says Fred Phelps, 84, died shortly after midnight Thursday. She didn’t give the cause of death or the condition that recently put him in hospice care.
Phelps and other members of the Westboro Baptist church frequently protest at funerals of soldiers with signs containing messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers,” and “Thank God for 9/11,” claiming the deaths are God’s punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.
Last year, the group made statements ahead of the World Series that God punished Red Sox fans by bringing about the Boston Marathon bombings earlier in the year.
In 2010, the group protested outside Framingham High School because the school’s drama group was performing the play ‘The Laramie Project.” They also held protests at Brandeis and Harvard Universities, and picketed the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland.
Westboro Baptist, a small group made mostly of Phelps’ extended family, inspired a federal law and laws in numerous states limiting picketing at funerals. But in a major free-speech ruling in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the church and its members had the right to picket military funerals, and couldn’t be sued for monetary damages for inflicting pain on grieving families under the First Amendment.
Despite the 2011 ruling, Massachusetts continued to enforce its state law that keeps protesters at least 500 feet from a funeral. At the time, Attorney General Martha Coakley said police have discretion in maintaining order and that the Massachusetts law strikes a balance between protesters’ free speech and the rights of military families.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights nonprofit group, has called Westboro Baptist Church a hate group.
Nate Phelps, an estranged son of Fred Phelps, told The Associated Press in a phone interview Sunday night that members of Westboro voted Phelps out of the church last summer, apparently “after some kind of falling out.”
Nate Phelps, who broke away from the church 37 years ago, said church members became concerned afterward that his father might harm himself and moved him out of the church, where he and his wife had lived for years. Fred Phelps was moved into a house, stopped eating and was moved into hospice care, Nate Phelps said.
The estranged son is in contact with other family members who are also estranged from the church and said two of them managed to visit his father earlier this month.
Before Phelps’ death, Kansas’ leading gay-rights group on Sunday urged the gay community to respect the privacy of the “notoriously anti-LGBT” pastor.
Phelps and the members of his church have “harassed” the grieving families of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Kansans and others, Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said in a prepared statement.
But Witt added: “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.”
Nate Phelps said he has no doubt some people would want to protest his father’s funeral but added, “I wish they wouldn’t.”
(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
MORE LOCAL NEWS FROM CBS BOSTON