TOPEKA, Kan. – Fred Phelps did not care what you thought of his Westboro Baptist Church, nor did he care if you heard its message that society’s tolerance for gay people is the root of all earthly evil.
By the time you saw one of his outrageous and hate-filled signs – “You’re Going to Hell” was among the more benign – you were already doomed.
Tall, thin and increasingly spectral as he aged, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and the Westboro Baptist Church, a small congregation made up almost entirely of his extended family, tested the boundaries of the free speech guarantees by 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.
All of that was irrelevant to Phelps, who died late Wednesday. He was 84.
God is love? Heresy, he preached, and derisively insisted the Lord had nothing but anger and bile for the moral miscreants of his creation. In Phelps’ reading of the Bible, God determined your fate at the moment of your creation.
Informing the damned could not save them from eternal fire, Phelps believed, but it was required for his salvation and path to paradise.
And so he and his flock traveled the country, protesting at the funerals for victims of AIDS and soldiers slain in Iraq and Afghanistan, picketing outside country music concerts and even the Academy Awards – any place sure to draw attention and a crowd – with an unrelenting message of hatred for gays and lesbians.
“Can you preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God?” he asked in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. “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.
But in a major free-speech ruling in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the church and its members were protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and could not be sued for monetary damages for inflicting pain on grieving families.