Fred Waldron Phelps, the lay preacher who believed he could re-closet homosexuals by obstructing the funerals of American servicemen, died last week at a hospice in Topeka, Kansas. He was 84.
Phelps was born in Meridian, Mississippi on Nov. 13, 1929. He was raised Methodist, became an Eagle Scout, ran track and graduated from high school when he was 16. In 1951, at just 21, he was profiled in Time magazine for denouncing “promiscuous petting” at his alma mater, John Muir College in Pasadena, California.
He married Margie Marie Simms in 1952 and the couple moved to Topeka in 1954. The Phelps’ had 13 children, 54 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He founded an independent church, call the Westboro Baptist Church in 1955. Most of the congregation was related to Phelps.
Phelps graduated from Washburn University School of Law in Topeka in 1964 and specialized in civil rights cases. “Most blacks…that’s who they went to,” Ben Scott of the Topeka chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. told CNN in 2010. “I don’t know if he was cheaper or if he had that stick-to-it-ness, but Fred didn’t lose many back then.” Phelps was disbarred in Kansas in 1979 and agreed to stop practicing federal law a decade later.
He began protesting the public tolerance of homosexuality in 1991 after learning that men were using a public park near his home for “indecent conduct.” That year he and his followers began spoiling the funerals of people who died of AIDS and he began protesting outside local churches he considered to be tolerant of homosexuality.
The Westboro congregation began disrupting the funerals of American soldiers in 2005. Phelps claimed that American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were God’s retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexuals. His most famous slogan was “God hates fags.”
Those demonstrations at military funerals led to the formation of a well known motorcycle group called The Patriot Guard Riders. The Patriot Guard took on the mission of physically shielding mourners from the protesters and drowning out their insults by revving their engines and singing patriotic songs.
In his final years, Phelps’ family split into factions of relatives who could stand the protests and those who could not.
Phelps spent his life judging others. Now he will be judged.