Fred Phelps, Westboro leader, dies at 84

FILE - In this March 19, 2006 file photo, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. preaches at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Phelps, the founder of the Kansas church known for anti-gay protests and pickets at military funerals, died Thursday, March 20, 2014. He was 84. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

FILE - In this March 19, 2006 file photo, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. preaches at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Phelps, the founder of the Kansas church known for anti-gay protests and pickets at military funerals, died Thursday, March 20, 2014. He was 84. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

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 Wed-nesday. 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. He and a daughter were even barred from entering Britain for inciting hatred.

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.

Phelps’ final weeks were shrouded in mystery. A long-estranged son, Nate Phelps, said his father had been voted out of the congregation in the summer of 2013 “after some sort of falling out,” but the church refused to discuss the matter. Westboro’s spokesman would only obliquely acknowledge this month that Phelps had been moved into a care facility because of health problems.

Margie Phelps did not reveal to The Associated Press on Thursday the condition that put Phelps in hospice care. Asked if he was surrounded by family or friends at his death, she would only say that “all of his needs were met when he died.” There will be no funeral, she said.

Fred Waldron Phelps was born in Meridian, Miss., on Nov. 13, 1929. He was raised a Methodist and once said he was “happy as a duck” growing up. He was an Eagle Scout, ran track and graduated from high school at age 16.

Selected to attend the U.S. Military Academy, Phelps never made it to West Point. He once said he went to a Methodist revival meeting and felt the calling to preach. Ordained a Baptist minister in 1947, he met his wife after he delivered a sermon in Arizona and they were married in 1952.

Phelps was a missionary and pastor in the western United States and Canada before settling in Topeka in 1955 and founding his church. He earned his law degree from Washburn University in Topeka in 1964, focused on civil rights issues.

But in 1979, the Kansas Supreme Court stripped him of his license to practice in state courts, concluding he’d made false statements in court documents and “showed little regard” for professional ethics. He called the court corrupt and insisted he saw its action as a badge of honor. He later agreed to stop practicing in federal court, too.

It wasn’t just the message, but also the mocking tone that many found to be deliberately cruel. Led by Phelps, church members thanked God for roadside explosive devices and prayed for thousands more casualties, calling the deaths of military personnel killed in the Middle East a divine punishment for a nation it believed was doomed by its tolerance for gay people.

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