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Fred Phelps Dies: Westboro Baptist Church Founder Was 84

Image: Fred Phelps Dies: Westboro Baptist Church Founder Was 84

By Clyde Hughes   |   Thursday, 20 Mar 2014 01:16 PM

Pastor Fred Phelps Sr., founder of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., died late Wednesday at the city's Midland Care Hospice, one of his daughters confirmed to the Topeka Capital-Journal Thursday. He was 84.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, Fred Phelps' daughter, did not give a cause for his death or say what condition put him in hospice care recently. When asked when or if a funeral service will be held, she told the reporter it was "none of your business."

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Phelps, known for his intense opposition to homosexuality, gained nationwide attention by leading the church in picketing funerals for gay people, Jews, and members of the military. In a prominent case, the church protested outside the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was reportedly killed for being gay in October 1998.

Westboro's effort to picket military funerals has prompted two federal laws, according to USA Today. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed a law that established a 150-foot zone prohibiting picketing at military funerals within an hour of the service. 

In 2012, President Barack Obama signed a similar law that increased the buffer to 300 feet and doubled the prohibition to within two hours of the service.

Nate Phelps, Fred Phelps' son who left the church 37 years ago, told the Capital-Journal that his father has been excommunicated from Westboro in August 2013 because he began advocating for more kindness toward its members.

Westboro spokesman Steve Drain declined to confirm whether Phelps had been excommunicated from the church.

"We don't discuss our internal church dealings with anybody," Drain said. "It's only because of his notoriety that you are asking."

The Washington Post reported that Phelps was an ordained Baptist minister who was disbarred from practicing law in Kansas. 

"Westboro Baptist Church is arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America,"  the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote of the church. "The group is basically a family-based cult of personality built around its patriarch, Fred Phelps . . . WBC is known for its harsh anti-gay beliefs and the crude signs its members carry at their frequent protests." 

Some members of the Phelps family asked the world for forgiveness for Fred Phelps' actions. Megan Phelps, the Westboro founder's granddaughter who left the church in 2012, posted a series of tweets about the death of the man she called "Gramps."

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