The Rev. Fred Phelps, Sr., who founded the Westboro Baptist Church of "God Hates Fags" infamy, died Wednesday night, an estranged family member told Topeka's WIBW.
Las Vegas TV station KVVU also reported that Timothy Phelps, one of Phelps's son's who is not a member of the church, is telling media outlets that his father died late last night in hospice care in Topeka, Kan. On Thursday morning, the WBC confirmed the "death of Fred Phelps' body, a man who preached a plain faithful doctrine to an ever darkening world."
Last week, another of Phelps's estranged sons, Nathan, announced on Facebook that his father had been excommunicated from the WBC and was "on the edge of death" in hospice care.
The 84-year-old preacher and disbarred lawyer built a hateful name for himself by establishing the WBC in the 1950s, and rose to prominence picketing the funerals of people who died of AIDS complications, then gained international attention when the church picketed slain gay college student Matthew Shepard's funeral in 1998. Under the leadership of Phelps, Sr., his children and grandchildren who comprise the vast majority of the church's congregation made a habit of picketing the funerals of military veterans, carrying inflammatory signs with messages like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and claiming that the death of American troops was God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. The WBC regularly picketed funerals and events which they believed were sinful, often "thanking God" for natural disasters, violent massacres, and even the attacks on September 11, 2001.
After the WBC picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder in 2006, Snyder's family sued the church for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The case ultimately ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court, where an 8-1 majority found in favor of Phelps, citing constitutional guarantees to free speech, even when that speech is outrageous and offensive.
As Phelps's health declined, his wife Margie, and daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, took over ministerial and administrative duties at the church, though recent reports indicate that the balance of power may have again shifted after a panel of male church elders defeated Phelps-Roper, prompting Phelps., Sr. to call for a "kinder approach to church members" — a position which reportedly led to the reverend's excommunication from the church last August.
The WBC's Thursday blog post addressed these allegations in typically hysterical rhetoric, claiming that the worldwide media has been "in a frenzy...gleefully anticipating the death of Fred Waldron Phelps Sr."
"It’s like every journalist in the world simultaneously set aside what little journalistic integrity they have, so that they could wait breathlessly for a rumor to publish: in-fighting, succession plans, and power struggles, oh my!" reads the blog. "How shameful! You’re like a bunch of little girls on the playground waiting for some gossip! Listen carefully; there are no power struggles in the Westboro Baptist Church, and there is no human intercessor — we serve no man, and no hierarchy, only the Lord Jesus Christ. No red shoes, no goofy hat, and no white smoke for us; thank you very much."
In response to the senior Phelps's death, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force issued a conciliatory statement. "Fred Phelps will not be missed by the LGBT community, people with HIV/AIDS and the millions of decent people across the world who found what he and his followers do deeply hurtful and offensive," said Rev. Darlene Nipper, NGLTF's deputy executive director, in a statement Thursday. "Through his actions, he brought needless pain and suffering to thousands of families, including to military families, at their time of greatest pain and grieving. 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."
One of Phelps' grandaughters, Megan Phelps-Roper, who reportedly left the church along with her younger sister last year, tweeted an apology for the harm her grandfather and his followers caused, while also noting that he could be a kind man to his family members.
I'm so sorry for the harm he caused. That we all caused. But he could be so kind and wonderful. I wish you all could have seen that, too.
— Megan Phelps-Roper (@meganphelps) March 20, 2014
Watch the AP report on Phelps' death below.