Fred Phelps is America's most notorious anti-gay activist. On his "God Hates Fags" website and in tracts sent from his church compound in Topeka, Kan., Phelps and his congregation — composed mainly of his extended family — pump out reams of anti-gay material, much of it so vulgar that many anti-gay activists complain that Phelps has given them a bad name. Phelps and his followers have crisscrossed the country to picket the funerals of AIDs victims and engage in other, similar protests. But it is his group's picketing of the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq — to tell the world, as Phelps argues, that their deaths are God's punishment for America's "fag-enabling" ways — that has inspired almost universal revulsion and contempt.
In His Own Words
"America is doomed for its acceptance of homosexuality. If God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for going after fornication and homosexuality then why wouldn't God destroy America for the same thing?"
—Undated pamphlet, "What is the message of the Westboro Baptist Church?"
"Rabbi Lawrence Karol is an apostate Jew who denies the faith of his fathers, militantly promotes the anal-copulating agenda of Topeka's filthy fag community, and persecutes the Lord's people just as his vermin ancestors did in killing the Lord Jesus Christ and their own prophets and persecuting the apo[s]tles of Christ. Hence they live filthy lives of sexual perversion, greed, violence, and oppression of the Lord's people. This is why the vile Jews of Temple Beth Sholom promote sodomy and persecute Baptists."
—1996 press release regarding Westboro Baptist Church's protest of a Topeka, Kan., synagogue
"The Rod of God hath smitten fag America! ... At left is the filthy face of fag evil. [Hijacked American Airlines pilot] David Charlebois. One of the hundreds of fags and dykes and fag-/dyke-enablers working for American Airlines... . If the fags have a secret funeral for David Charlebois — in order to frustrate WBC's [Westboro Baptist Church's] plan to picket his funeral — WBC will picket his house... . The multitudes slain Sept. 11, 2001, are in Hell — forever!"
—2001 comments on one 9/11 victim
"Military funerals are pagan orgies of idolatrous blasphemy where they pray to the dunghill gods of Sodom and play taps to a fallen fool."
—2006 comment on picketing soldiers' funerals
Since 1951, Phelps has been arrested repeatedly for assault, battery, threats, trespassing, disorderly conduct, and contempt of court. He has been convicted four times, as well as disbarred, but has successfully avoided prison.
From a small compound in Topeka, Kan., Fred Phelps and his 100 or so followers at the Westboro Baptist Church have made their mark on history by pumping out what may be the most crudely vitriolic and sustained expressions of unrelieved hatred of LGBT people in America today. He and his flock — primarily composed of most of his 13 children, their children and other relatives — have picketed events ranging from theater performances to the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers to children murdered or killed in traffic accidents. These protests share a simple theme: Attacking America's perceived tolerance of homosexuality and celebrating God's perceived wrath as just rewards for "fags" and "fag-enablers." Phelps' activism is driven by the worldview expressed in his infamous catchphrase, "God Hates Fags," which is also the name of his church's website.
Although he does not physically attack gays and lesbians, Phelps calls for them to be tried and executed, and celebrates the death of those who do meet a violent end. Most famously, Phelps and his supporters picketed the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay student brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyo., carrying signs reading, "Matt Shepard Rots in Hell" and "AIDS Kills Fags Dead." Phelps also attempted without success to build a granite monument in Cheyenne, Wyo., declaring: "Matthew Shepard, Entered Hell October 12, 1998, in Defiance of God's Warning: ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination.' Leviticus 18:22."
Born in Mississippi in 1929, Phelps dropped out of Bob Jones University in 1947. He got his first taste of media attention in 1951 when Time magazine profiled his street preaching crusade against "dirty" humor. After earning a law degree from Washburn University in 1962, Phelps went on to build a reputation as, of all things, a civil rights lawyer. But his law career began to crumble in 1979, when he was disbarred in Kansas for perjury. He continued to rack up complaints for false testimony until, as part of a 1989 plea deal, he agreed to cease practicing in federal courts.
It was in 1991 that Phelps kicked off his anti-gay crusade with picketing of a Topeka park allegedly frequented by LGBT people. In the early 1990s, he began a torrent of anti-gay pickets across America that continues to this day. His hundreds of actions have resulted in extensive (and often stupefied) media coverage, as well as numerous local, city, state and federal laws seeking to curb Phelps' activities. In fact, his attempts to picket in Canada resulted in that country's first hate-crime law, informally known as the "Fred Phelps Law." Other legislation sparked by Phelps' protests includes the federal "Fallen Heroes Act." Passed in May 2006 after Phelps made headlines targeting the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, it prohibits protests within 300 feet of any national cemetery from 60 minutes before to 60 minutes after a funeral. Twenty states have since passed laws similar to the Fallen Heroes Act, while many cities, including Phelps' hometown Topeka, have enacted local ordinances tailored to thwart Phelps. The American Civil Liberties Union filed suits in Missouri and Ohio on behalf of Phelps' church, without success.
While at first glance Phelps appears a caricature of a socially conservative Christian rightist, he is no patriot. His Topeka compound — which houses his church and five homes occupied by relatives — is draped with an enormous upside-down American flag, representing a fallen nation whose seas are protected by what he calls a "fag Navy." He has targeted not only liberal, but also conservative icons such as Ronald Reagan, whom Phelps picketed for sending an ambassador to the Vatican. (Phelps thought this a breach of separation of church and state; he has also denounced the Catholic Church over sex scandals.) Phelps has also publicly praised a number of America's official enemies, including Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein.
Because his professed hatred for gay men and lesbians runs so deep and overflows in such bizarre and bilious ways, some have questioned the source and nature of Phelps' commitment to the "cause" of anti-gay activism. "I'm so tired of people calling him an ‘anti-gay activist'," one Topeka resident told the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2001. "He's not an anti-gay activist. He's a human abuse machine."
Targets of this "abuse machine" extend beyond those normally attacked by anti-gay activists. Westboro Baptist Church members under Phelps' orders have picketed Bill Clinton's mother, Sonny Bono, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dole, Jerry Falwell, the Ku Klux Klan, Santa Claus and the 17 sailors killed aboard the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 — all of whom Phelps has attacked as "fags" or "supporters of the fag agenda." In 2009, WBC members began viciously attacking Jews and protesting in front of synagogues holding signs reading "The Jews Killed Jesus" and "God Hates Jews."
Westboro’s protests have tested the boundaries of the First Amendment and been found to be legal. In 2006, the group picketed the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Maryland. Snyder’s father subsequently sued and won a $5 million verdict against Westboro, but the judgment was thrown out on appeal, a ruling that was affirmed 8-1 by the Supreme Court in March 2011. “As a nation we have chosen …to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion.
By 2012, Phelps was ailing, and two of his daughters, Margie Phelps and Shirley Phelps-Roper, had become the public face of Westboro. Margie Phelps, who works for the Kansas Department of Corrections, appeared to have a broader spectrum of hate than her father. In 2004, she was arrested while protesting a dedication ceremony for the Brown v. Board of Education Historical Site in Topeka.
Phelps died on March 19, 2014.