Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of Fred Phelps, confirmed to the Topeka Capital-Journal that her father passed away earlier on Thursday. The founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., had been in a local hospice for several days.
Nathan Phelps, the estranged son of Fred Phelps, wrote on his Facebook page on March 15 that his father was “on the edge of the death.”
Fred Phelps, 84, became the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church shortly after its founding in 1955.
The small congregation gained national notoriety in 1998 after members picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to death outside Laramie, Wyo. Romaine Patterson, Jim Osborn and other friends of the gay college student used angel wings to shield his parents from Fred Phelps as he protested outside the courthouse in which the trials of the two men whom prosecutors said killed him took place.
“All the cameras and reporters turned toward them, and I cried as I saw this brave group of people stride toward him with love and strength in their hearts,” wrote Cathy Renna, a then-GLAAD staffer who worked with the Shepard family, in the Huffington Post after Fred Phelps’ death. “And that was what made the news – not him but the amazing response.”
Westboro Baptist Church members protested gay journalist Randy Shilts’ funeral and now retired New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson’s 2003 consecration.
They picketed outside the U.S. Supreme Court last March as the justices heard oral arguments in cases challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church last July also gathered outside the New Castle County offices in Wilmington, Del., before state Sen. Karen Peterson and her partner, Vikki Bandy, exchanged vows on the first day same-sex couples could legally marry in Delaware.
A Maryland man, Albert Snyder, in 2006 sued Fred Phelps and other Westboro Baptist Church members after they protested the funeral of his son, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, who died in a non-combat car accident in Iraq. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 cited the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment in their ruling in favor of the church.
“MCC members do not celebrate the coming death of Fred Phelps,” said Rev. Nancy Wilson, moderator of the Metropolitan Community Churches, on Wednesday before Fred Phelps passed away. “We have lived under the shadow of his hateful messages, and we will not follow in his footsteps. Today, we pray for his soul and for his whole family.”
Rev. Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said in a statement that Fred Phelps and members of the Westboro Baptist Church brought “needless pain and suffering” to thousands of military families and others “at their time of greatest pain and grieving.”
“Fred Phelps will not be missed by the LGBT community, people with HIV/AIDS and the millions of decent people across the world,” said Nipper. “While it is hard to find anything good to say about his views or actions, we do give our condolences to his family members at what must be a painful time for them.”
“So his legacy will be exactly the opposite of what he dreamed, and I think we should all take a moment to remember the lives of the people he has hurt and not waste a second dancing on his grave,” added Renna in the Huffington Post. “I know I will take a moment to remember those angels turning the corner and think about how our community has turned an even bigger corner to create a world where that kind of hate no longer exists.”