Fred Phelps, the founder of a Kansas-based group known for its anti-gay protests and picketing of military funerals, died of natural causes on Wednesday night at the age of 84.
Westboro Baptist Church, a small but vocal congregation, was founded in 1955 to warn the world of God’s wrath toward our “deeply corrupted nation and world.” They believe that all natural disasters, infrastructure failures, school shootings and diseases are evidence of God’s anger — that these things are punishments for human “corruption.” According to Phelps one of the biggest causes of divine wrath is homosexuality. He often advocated for putting gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals to death. His church continues to do so — and talks of AIDS as a “cure” for homosexuality.
The church has protested over 53,000 events since the early ’90s — from the funerals of United States soldiers (with signs like “Thank God for dead soldiers”) to pop concerts. They came to national attention when they picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming man who was brutally murdered in what quickly became the most prominent hate crime in the nation’s recent memory. The signs they carried — telling those grieving at the funeral that Shepard was “rotting in hell” — caused outrage.
Phelps believed that a good barometer of his preaching was just this type of outrage. But despite the group’s propensity for spreading hateful messages, the Supreme Court upheld their right to picket funerals on free speech grounds in 2011. Fighting on constitutional grounds wasn’t new to Phelps, who had defended civil rights cases in the 1950s before being disbarred in 1979. The issue of his disbarment would foreshadow some of his tactics down the line: he had sued Carolene Brady, a court reporter, for failure to provide a court transcript, seeking $22,000 in damages. During the trial, he called her to the stand, where he badgered her over the course of a one week cross-examination, accusing her, among other things, of being a “slut” and engaging in “perverse” sexual acts. He even attempted to introduce testimony from her ex-boyfriends to convey these points.
The Kansas Supreme Court described his examination as “replete with repetition, badgering, innuendo, belligerence, irrelevant and immaterial matter, evidencing only a desire to hurt and destroy the defendant. The jury verdict didn’t stop the onslaught of Phelps. He was not satisfied with the hurt, pain, and damage he had visited on Carolene Brady.” Ultimately, Phelps would be barred from practicing law in Kansas when he introduced affidavits to the court regarding Brady, which Brady showed to be outright fabrications. Phelps continued to practice law in federal court after his disbarment, but that too came to an end. After a series of false accusations against a number of judges, Phelps stopped practicing law in federal court permanently in 1985.
This liberty with fact and intent to cause deep emotional wounds would come into play again during Phelps’ ministry at Westboro Baptist. In 1994, Phelps was convicted of disorderly conduct and the following year, he was convicted for assault and battery. Such was his reputation that the United Kingdom’s Home Office put Phelps and his daughter, attorney and Westboro spokesperson Shirley Phelps-Roper, on their list of individuals denied entry to the U.K, for “engaging in unacceptable behaviour by fostering hatred which might lead to inter-community violence in the United Kingdom.”
Though in Snyder v. Phelps the Supreme Court granted the congregation the right to picket at funerals, many states moved quickly, passing laws to put distance between the disruptive congregation and the grieving. Eleven of Phelp’s 13 children are attorneys, however, and many of them have threatened to challenge the constitutionality of several state bans.
In 2006, president George W. Bush signed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act, which banned protests within 300 feet of national cemeteries from an hour before a funeral to an hour after it. Six years later, president Barack Obama signed the Honoring Americaâ€™s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 which, among other things, put a 300-foot and 2-hour buffer zone around all military funerals.
Many consider Westoboro Baptist Church a hate group, including the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center, but despite over 367,000 signatures calling on the White House to legally recognize the congregation as such, the Obama administration reminded the public that “as a matter of practice, the federal government doesn’t maintain a list of hate groups.” Many Christian organizations have also condemned the message and activities of Westboro Baptist Church.
Former members of the congregation — which is mostly made up of the Phelps family — were denied access to Phelps before his death. In the past ten years, four of Phelps’ 13 children and 20 of his grandchildren have split from the group. One of Phelps’ estranged sons, Nathan Phelps, posted on Facebook last week that his father had been ex-communicated by the church last summer for advocating more kindness to its members. This has not been verified by the congregation, though a statement emphasized there had been no internal power struggles.
When contacted by media, many of relatives no longer involved with Westboro Baptist Church expressed regret about the harm and pain that Phelps and his congregation have caused. Sadly, this small group is not the only one that believes that an all-powerful deity is angry with the world. There are several groups around the country that have been designated hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In Arizona, there is the Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, and United Families International and Family Watch International in Gilbert. In California, Vallecito is the seat of the Chalcedon Foundation, Sacramento hosts the Pacific Justice Institute and Save California, Anaheim is home to the Traditional Values Coalition, and San Marcos is the headquarters of the Ruth Institute. In Colorado, the Family Research Institute and the Pray in Jesus Name Project which are based in Colorado Springs, Generations With Vision is in Elizabeth, and Christ the King Church is located at Larkspur. In the District of Columbia, Washington is home to Traditional Values Coalition, the Family Research Council and the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (otherwise known as C-FAM). Florida hosts the American College of Pediatricians in Gainsville (founded by a former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics in protest of the professional association’s support for the right of gay and lesbian couples to adopt children), Truth In Action Ministries in Ft. Lauderdale, and the Liberty Counsel in Orlando. In Georgia, we have American Vision in Powder Springs, Faith Baptist Church’s Sons of Thundr in Luthersville. In Illinois, there’s the Illinois Family Institute in Carol Stream, Heterosexuals Organized for a Moral Environment (known as H.O.M.E.) in Downers Grove, Americans for Truth About Homosexuality in Naperville, the World Congress of Families or Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in Rockford. Massachusetts is home to Abiding Truth Ministries in Springfield and Mass Resistance in Waltham. Michigan hosts Traverse City Family (known as TC Family) in Traverse City. In Minnesota, there’s the Parents Action League in Champlin and You Can Run, But You Cannot Hide in Annandale. Tupelo, Mississippi, is the headquarters of the American Family Association. Maiden, North Carolina is home to Providence Road Baptist Church. Help Rescue Our Children is based out of Monsey, New York. New York, New York, hosts the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), and though not listed, is also the home of ATLAH World Church, known for its anti-gay fear-mongering, about which I reported two weeks ago. Columbus, Ohio is home to Mission: America. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma is the base of Windsor Hills Baptist Church. Franklin, Pennsylvania, is where the American Family Association is headquartered. True Light Pentecost Church is in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Tom Brown Ministries are located in El Paso, Texas. Public Advocate of the United States is based in Falls Church, Virginia. And Monroe, Wisconsin, is the seat of Pilgrims Covenant Church.
As evidenced by the lengthy list, a handful of these groups are not simply religious organizations, but openly-political lobbying groups. We have seen what such views look like on the campaign trail. Though gay rights organizations have seen modest success in recent years, there are a number of political candidates lobbying to reverse the trend. Most recently, Susanne Atanus won the Republican Congressional candidate nomination in Illinois’ 9th District, which includes Chicago. She has gone on the record saying things Westboro Baptist would be proud of, among them that she believes God controls the weather and has put tornadoes and diseases such as autism and dementia on earth as in response to gay rights and legalized abortions.
“God is angry,” she told the Daily Herald, “We are provoking him with abortions and same-sex marriage and civil unions. Same-sex activity is going to increase AIDS. If it’s in our military it will weaken our military.”
Header image by Bolton.