During a life that spanned more than eight decades, Fred Phelps Sr. was many things: a father, a civil rights attorney, a one-time congressional hopeful.
In the end, though, he will be remembered as just one: the architect of a small ministry that became a fountain of anti-gay sentiment, brought national scorn to Kansas and eventually tested the limits of Americans’ right to free speech.
Phelps, whose decades-long work as pastor of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church transformed him into one of the country’s most reviled religious figures, died late Wednesday of undisclosed causes. He was 84.
Over the past quarter century, Phelps devoted himself to carrying out a loud and fiery attack against not only homosexuality, which he considered an ultimate sin, but those who didn’t share his aversion to it.
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His vitriolic faxes regularly found their way to media outlets across the country, and his taunting pickets – often carried out as families stood in a cemetery nearby, mourning a loved one – grew to become, for many, a symbol of unbridled hate.
“Fred Phelps was without question America’s most rabid gay basher,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “There was simply no one worse out there.”
Born on Nov. 13, 1929, in Meridian, Miss., Phelps graduated from high school at the age of 16 before enrolling in what is now Bob Jones University. After settling in Topeka with his wife, Margie Marie Phelps, in the mid-1950s, Phelps earned a law degree from Washburn University and embarked upon a career that would become something of a family business.
Phelps first gained wide attention in 1978 when he won a settlement of $19,500 from the Topeka Board of Education for then-16-year-old Evelyn Rene Johnson. Phelps argued that by attending predominantly minority schools on the city’s east side, Johnson, who was black, had received an inferior education.
In the ensuing years, Phelps was honored by the Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government for his work in civil rights, and the Rev. D.D. Miller, then president of the Wichita chapter of the NAACP, once said that Phelps was “likened to Abraham Lincoln, President Kennedy and Martin Luther King in our community.”
But even then, he was a controversial figure.
In 1969, he was suspended from legal practice for two years for professional misconduct. Ten years later, he was disbarred by the Kansas Supreme Court following accusations that he’d made false statements and held a vendetta against a court reporter. Phelps agreed in 1989 to permanently relinquish his license to practice law in federal court.
Following a brief and forgettable foray into politics – he ran unsuccessfully for Kansas governor, the U.S. Senate and Topeka mayor – Phelps devoted himself to the Westboro Baptist Church, a group he’d headed since 1955.
In 1991, the church held its first picket at Topeka’s Gage Park, purportedly in response to homosexual activity occurring there, and members later crossed the country to push their message.
With a congregation composed almost entirely of family members, Phelps continued his crusade against homosexuality into the new millennium, slowly upping the ante in his quest to bring attention to the group’s cause.
During the Iraq war, Westboro Baptist members began picketing the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers, claiming that the deaths were the direct result of the country’s tolerance of homosexuality. The group’s pickets – and the backlash they generated – eventually prompted legal response.
Less than a month after the church protested the March 2006 funeral of Marine Matthew Snyder, Congress passed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act, which prohibited protests within 300 feet of the entrance to a cemetery during a funeral. Snyder’s family, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit against the church, and a Baltimore jury awarded them $10 million. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., overturned the ruling.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in March 2011 that the church’s funeral pickets and anti-gay speech were protected under the Constitution.
In his final years, Phelps seemed to have grown increasingly removed from Westboro’s day-to-day operations, granting fewer interviews and allowing daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper to coordinate many of its media and picketing efforts.
In 2011, the church reported that 20 members had defected since 2004, three-fourths of them in their teens or 20s. In February 2013, the group lost one of its most prominent members when Phelps’ granddaughter, Megan Phelps-Roper, left Westboro Baptist citing a growing disenchantment with its practices.
The Topeka neighborhood occupied by the church was a scene of jubilation Thursday afternoon, complete with honking cars and smiling faces. Neighbors said the procession began shortly after the family announced Phelps’ death.
Even during the height of his efforts, the gay rights movement had made increasingly significant strides – from the jump in gay marriage legalization to the number of states that now prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
And in the end, it seemed reasonable to wonder: Had his life’s work, impassioned as it was, had any kind of real effect?
“I think he will have had zero impact,” said Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas. “The gay rights movement was moving right along before he started his protests in 1991, it continued unabated after ’91, and we will keep making progress once he’s gone.”