Fred Phelps (1929-2014)

Fred_Phelps_10-29-2002The Reverend Fred Phelps, Sr., founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, died shortly after midnight this morning, said daughter Margie Phelps.  No cause was given for his death.

With his church’s website, and their protests of funerals of celebrities and military personnel, Phelps and his congregation, which consisted mainly of his extended family, provoked virtually everyone with his message that America was doomed because of its acceptance of LGBT people, and the often cruel, mocking tone of the protests.  When Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming student was beaten to death because of his sexual orientation, WBC members, showed up to protest, an act of audacity that put them on the map.  But when evangelist Jerry Falwell died in 2007, members of the WBC also protested his funeral.

An Eagle Scout who graduated school at 16 and was accepted by the US military academy at West Point, Phelps instead turned to preaching after a Methodist revival.  He did nevertheless obtain a degree in law at Washburn University in Topeka, after a checkered education that led him to stints at Bob Jones University and John Muir College.  Ironically, according to Wikipedia, his Phelps Chartered law firm was known for taking on civil rights cases, leading to awards in the eighties from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks In Government and the Bonner Springs chapter of the NAACP.  In fact, although there are no black members of WBC, the church explicitly disavows racist views, reportedly saying on its FAQ page, “The only true Nazis in this world are fags.”

Phelps was disbarred from practicing law in the state of Kansas in 1979, and agreed to stop practicing in Federal courts in 1985.  A number of members of his children practice law, the proceeds from lawsuits contributing to the WBC’s funding.

At least 20 members of the WBC have publicly broken with the church, many of them, including atheist Nate Phelps, alleging brainwashing, physical and emotional abuse within the Phelps family.

Fred’s position in the church in recent years has been none too clear; he was reportedly excommunicated from the church in 2013, the year in which he preached his last weekly sermon at the church, with other members of the Phelps extended family stepping in over the past decade in the group’s activities.

The WBC and the Phelps family has alienated just about everyone, from gays and non-Christians to other figures and forces on the Religious Right.  We heard about Fred’s death on our private Facebook account, from the feed of American Atheists, who, to their credit, did not for one second gloat or delight in the death of Phelps, nor should anyone.  Their own tendency to throw tragedy in the face of almost anyone who was not in their inner circle is condemnation enough.



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