U.S./World: Westboro founder Fred Phelps dies

Beyond the Carolinas

Fred Phelps, right, stands with his wife and four church members at an April 2001 protest at Independence Square in Charlotte targeting Bank of America. File Photo.

Fred Phelps, right, stands with his wife and four church members at an April 2001 protest at Independence Square in Charlotte targeting Bank of America. File Photo.

TOPEKA, Kan. — Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church, died on March 19. Phelps, known for his “God Hates Fags” anti-gay protests at LGBT events and military funerals, was 84.

Phelps’ extremist protests often tested the boundaries of free speech, with state lawmakers and private citizens undertaking legislation or lawsuits to stop him and his church, largely made up of close and extended family, from protesting at or near funerals.

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Phelps first came to national attention for vocally protesting the funeral of hate crime victim Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in October 1998.

Born in Meridian, Miss., in 1929, Phelps was later accepted to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point in 1946 at the age of 16. He left in 1947, enrolling at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. He dropped out after attending only three semesters. At 17, he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister.

In 1951, he finally earned a two-year degree from John Muir College, where he was profiled by Time magazine for preaching against “sins committed on campus by students and teachers … promiscuous petting … evil language … profanity … cheating … teachers’ filthy jokes in classrooms … [and] pandering to the lusts of the flesh.”

In 1964, Phelps earned a law degree from Washburn University and became an award-winning civil rights attorney, but was later

disbarred from the Kansas Supreme Court in 1979. He later lost his federal law license in 1989.

Phelps turned his attention to LGBT equality in 1991, first crusading against homosexual activity in a park near his church.

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Forty states eventually passed laws restricting protests at funerals, but a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling held that the First Amendment protected Phelps’ and his church’s activities.

Phelps protested in the Carolinas several times, including a November 1998 tour through the region where he protested at Bob Jones University and later at Wake Forest University, where they protested a Maya Angelou speech. In April 2001, in one of his last personal visits to North Carolina, Phelps visited Charlotte and protested at Independence Square at Trade and Tryon Sts. That event protested Bank of America and retiring CEO Hugh McColl for their inclusion of sexual orientation in the company’s non-discrimination policy. Phelps’ family and church continued to visit the state occasionally though Phelps himself did not always venture along, including a 2005 protest against a Durham staging of “The Laramie Project.”

— Matt Comer. LGBTQ Nation (lgbtqnation.com) contributed.

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