On this, the first day of Spring 2014, the world said goodbye to Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas.
Though he was reportedly excommunicated from the church in August 2013, Phelps was responsible for establishing and pushing the organization’s virulently antigay agenda and hateful teachings for nearly six decades.
Phelps only managed to bring the WBC into the national spotlight in the late ’90s, but in the two decades since, effortlessly became “the most hated man in America.”
Phelps apparently, and ironically, died from Alzheimer’s disease alone last night at the age of 84, and many are still asking, “Is it okay to celebrate his death?”
The values he preached are certainly not worth celebrating, but it’s silly to claim Phelps “had no impact” or was “useless,” as some have done. On the contrary, his vicious agenda made homophobia a nationally debated topic and even inspired legislation protecting against hate crimes and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Missed? Maybe not. Remembered? Definitely. Here are the five most despicable things for which Fred Phelps will be remembered:
He blamed the LGBT community for all the world’s evils, and began his reign of terror by picketing Matthew Shepard’s funeral
Fred Phelps brought national media attention to the Westboro Baptist Church and their unrelenting antigay agenda for the first time in October 1998, when the congregation traveled to picket the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was brutally murdered in a hate crime.
Phelps, along with daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper and others, preached their agenda outside services at the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. It was the first time outside their hometown that they displayed the now-infamous “God hates fags,” “AIDS cures fags” and “Matt in Hell” signs.
A group of protesters dressed as angels organized an anti-protest, standing silently in front of the WBC with giant angel wings to block the view. The ordeal was later immortalized on stage in The Laramie Project, a play depicting Matthew’s murder trial and funeral.
Since then, Phelps and the WBC were responsible for over 52,000 protests and pickets around the world.
He despised organized religion for accepting LGBTs
Phelps wrote a letter to Saddam Hussein in 1997 to praise his regime, claiming it was “the only Muslim state that allows the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to be freely and openly preached on the streets.” He and a group of WBC protesters traveled to Baghdad that year and condemned homosexuality, as well as President Bill Clinton, in the streets.
He picketed the funerals of soldiers, and blamed war on “tolerance of gays”
Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church became regular news topics again when they began protesting the funerals of soldiers killed in the Iraq War beginning in 2003. Members of the church traveled the country and regularly appeared in front page headlines brandishing “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Thank God for 9/11” signs. They claimed the deaths were “God’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.”
In 2006, the family of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, who died in combat in Iraq, brought a lawsuit against the WBC for picketing Snyder’s funeral on grounds of “defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
Snyder’s father, Albert Snyder, testified that “they turned [my son’s] funeral into a media circus and they wanted to hurt my family.” A lower court initially ruled in favor of Snyder’s family, but Phelps appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in his favor and ordered the Snyder’s to pay Westboro’s legal fees.
He claimed the adolescent victims of shootings deserved death for “being tolerant”
Phelps was the ringleader responsible for the picketing of numerous vigils and funerals of shooting victims across America. In 2011, he encouraged the church to begin using social media to threaten protests at the funerals of 75+ people, including children, who were killed in a massacre in Norway.
Phelps claimed the massacre was punishment handed down from God because “Norway made being a fag legal in 1972 and passed laws for fags to marry and adopt children in 2008.” Though the group never officially traveled to Norway, they discovered the Internet to be a great medium to drum up media attention.
Earlier in 2011, Phelps threatened to picket the funerals of a nine-year-old girl who was shot and killed, along with five others, in Tuscon, AZ. He later exchanged the protest for airtime on a local news network. Shortly after, Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill that barred protests within 300 feet of a funeral and within an hour from its beginning or end.
In 2012, Phelps and his congregation traveled to Newtown, CT, to picket the funeral of principal Dawn Hochsprung and several young victims of the Newtown shootings. Their protests were blocked by motorcyclists and citizens that stood along the streets where the funeral procession took place.
He threatened “imminent death” and eternal damnation against LGBT celebrities
Even though it was recently reported that Phelps was excommunicated from WBC in August 2013, his message of intolerance continued on as Shirley Phelps-Roper and others protested NFL hopeful Michael Sam‘s coming out in February. They showed up on the Mizzou University campus calling for the “death penalty” and shouting that Sam would “burn in hell.”
When Jason Collins came out last summer, the ‘church’ blamed his homosexuality for inflicting a disastrous tornado on Oklahoma. They claimed Collins would “eat your babies,” and that he should “die of AIDS.” Previously, WBC picketed the funeral of Michael Jackson and “thanked God” for his premature death.