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Westboro Baptist Church Founder Fred Phelps Sr. Dies

The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., whose tiny Westboro Baptist Church has protested outside the funerals of fallen soldiers and celebrities to spread its views about homosexuality and abortion, has died, according to news reports. He was 84.

A son, Timothy Phelps, tells WIBW-TV in Topeka, Kan., that his father died just before midnight Wednesday. A daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, tells The Topeka Capital-Journal that her father died at Midland Care Hospice in Topeka. The Associated Press says it too has confirmed the news. The cause of death hasn't been reported yet.

As NPR's Nathan Rott reports:

"Phelps made a name for himself by protesting military and high-profile funerals. He'd wave hateful signs with members of his Westboro Baptist Church and proclaim that the U.S. was being punished for its tolerance of homosexuality.

" 'God's wrath is upon this nation,' Phelps said at one such protest. 'And he's pouring out his wrath by killing those soldiers and maiming those soldiers in Iraq. And its only gonna get worse.'

"An ordained minister, Phelps formed the Westboro Baptist Church in 1955. He also practiced law as a civil rights attorney but was disbarred from the Kansas state court in 1979 and later lost his license to practice in federal courts.

"Phelps is survived by many family members, who make up most of his church's congregation."

The Washington Post notes that:

"Rev. Phelps was an ordained Baptist minister, a disbarred Kansas lawyer and, according to a BBC documentary, the patriarch of the 'most hated family in America.'

"The Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent civil rights group, described his Westboro congregation as a 'family-based cult' and 'arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.'

"The expression of Rev. Phelps's bigotry managed to offend the conscience of the Ku Klux Klan, which staged protests to counter Westboro's demonstrations at military funerals."

The Southern Poverty Law Center's page about Phelps is here.

While the church's protests outrage many Americans, the Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the First Amendment gives the protesters the right to do what they do. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority in the 8-1 decision, said that because the protesters' signs address the state of the nation, the content "relates to broad issues of interest to society at large, rather than matters of 'purely private concern' " and deserves protection.

In his dissent, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the protest at the center of the case — staged at the 2006 funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died while serving in Iraq — was "a malevolent verbal attack on Matthew and his family at a time of acute emotional vulnerability" and deserved no First Amendment protection.

Word that Phelps was in hospice care came over the weekend. There was also word over the weekend that the church had excommunicated Phelps, though the reason wasn't clear in the reports. One son told the AP that there had been "some kind of falling out." WIBW-TV says it was three of Phelps' children who cut the church's ties with its founder.

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