Skip to main content Accessibility
The Intelligence Report is the SPLC's award-winning magazine. Subscribe here for a print copy.

Fred Phelps Timeline

View a timeline of gay-hater Fred Phelps' life, politics, and use of lawsuits and heavy-handed tactics to harass an entire Kansas city.

Fred Waldron Phelps is born on Nov. 13 in Meridian, Miss.

Phelps enrolls in but never graduates from Bob Jones University, a highly conservative religious school known for banning interracial dating (a policy changed only in 2000) and for attacking Catholicism.

Ordained as a Baptist preacher at age 17, he spends the summer trying to convert Mormons.

After Phelps' California street ministry against dirty jokes and sexual petting is profiled by Time magazine, Fred and Marge Phelps meet and are married. Over the next 16 years, they will have 13 children.

The Phelpses arrive in Topeka on May 4, the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court issues its historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, finding that "separate but equal" public schools are unconstitutional.

On Nov. 27, the first service is held at Phelps' new Westboro Baptist Church (WBC).

But most of his congregation leaves the church after a series of internal conflicts, and Phelps is forced to support himself by selling vacuum cleaners and baby carriages door to door.

Phelps earns a law degree from Washburn University in Topeka, but has trouble joining the state bar when no judges are willing to vouch for his "good character," the normal procedure under Kansas law. Phelps overcomes this obstacle by providing recommendations from others.

Before the end of his legal career in 1989, Phelps will file some 400 suits, mostly in federal court. Estranged son Nathan Phelps will claim later that part of his father's strategy is to file frivolous lawsuits in the hope that his targets will settle to avoid the costs of defense.

Until the mid-1970s, the Phelps family's main income reportedly comes from using the children to sell candy door to door for several hours each day. The children are also required to run several miles a day.

Also this year, the Kansas Supreme Court temporarily suspends Phelps' law license on three counts of professional misconduct. But it denies a request by the state board of law examiners to have Phelps disbarred permanently.

Phelps files suit against lawyers, county commissioners and a judge in Topeka, alleging illegal acts by a "political machine" in Topeka. The defense answer says Phelps' suit was motivated by an earlier, now sealed, child abuse case against Phelps.

This same year, WBC is sued by two companies for failure to pay for the candy resold by the Phelps children.

The church is ordered to pay a reported $5,760 in one case; it settles for $1,650 in the other.

Phelps files a $50-million class action suit against Sears after a local outlet is several days late delivering a television set. Litigation continues for six years and is eventually settled with Sears paying Phelps $126 — about $60 less than Phelps' son originally paid for the TV, which he never receives.

In one of several civil rights cases filed by Phelps, an area school district pays almost $9,000 to Evelyn Rene Johnson (and over $10,000 in legal fees to Phelps) to settle a discrimination case.

Another Phelps case results in a settlement for blacks who were illegally searched by police at a party.

In 1986 and 1987, Phelps will receive three awards for his civil rights cases, including one bestowed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

After Phelps sues and harasses a court reporter he accuses of being late with a document, the Kansas Supreme Court, citing Phelps' "little regard for the ethics of his profession," permanently disbars him so he can no longer practice in state courts.

As a result of the same case, Phelps also will be suspended the following year from practicing in federal courts until 1982.

Phelps files the first of three federal lawsuits against Washburn University Law School after three of his children are denied admission. The suit contends his children should be granted minority status, and thus benefit from affirmative action, because of their association with their father's "civil rights" legal work.

A later suit switches the argument, alleging reverse discrimination because Phelps' children are white. All are dismissed in 1986.

Phelps sues President Ronald Reagan for sending an ambassador to the Vatican, alleging violations of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.

Nine federal judges in Kansas sign a disciplinary complaint against Phelps, five of his children and a daughter-in-law, alleging the seven made false accusations against the judges.

In a separate complaint, Phelps, still practicing in federal court, will be censured in 1987 for writing abusive letters this year to potential defendants threatening lawsuits if his demands were not met.

Phelps provides rooms for Democrat Al Gore's presidential campaign workers. Though the Phelps-Gore connection will grow increasingly distant, Phelps' oldest son, Fred Jr., is invited to the first Clinton-Gore inauguration in 1993.

By 1998, Gore will be seen as such an enemy by WBC that its members picket the funeral of Gore's father.

In a settlement of the 1985 disciplinary complaint against him and several family members, Phelps agrees to permanently stop practicing in federal court so that members of his family may continue practicing.

Also as part of the settlement, daughter Margie is suspended from practicing in federal and state courts for one year, son Fred Jr. for six months.

Phelps, undertaking a run for governor of Kansas, begins disseminating flyers attacking his gubernatorial competitors and other state politicians in unusually personal terms. He loses the Democratic primary, but garners 11,634 votes, 6.7% of the total.

In his most visible early attack on homosexuals, Phelps and his followers in May kick off what they term the "Great Gage Park Decency Drive," beginning regular pickets of a park in Topeka where homosexuals supposedly meet. (The WBC pickets will still be going strong a decade later.)

Around this time, Phelps and his congregants expand their operations, picketing enemies around the nation.

Running for the U.S. Senate, Phelps gets a remarkable 30.8% of the ballots cast in the Democratic primary even as he terms his opponent a "bull dike" [sic].

Largely in response to Phelps' and his followers' harassment of gays and others, the Kansas legislature passes laws regulating funeral picketing and penalizing stalking, and amends a statute outlawing telephone harassment to include faxes.

Shawnee County District Attorney Joan Hamilton begins to bring battery, assault and other charges — including eight counts of criminal defamation — against WBC members for a litany of alleged picket line abuses.

After Phelps responds by filing the first of three suits against Hamilton alleging wrongful prosecution, a court invalidates the state defamation statute, enjoins further prosecution of WBC members in the cases, and awards $43,000 in legal fees to the church.

Years later, an appeals court will reinstate the defamation statute, but by that time the statute of limitations on most charges has expired. All of Phelps' suits against Hamilton will be eventually resolved in the prosecutor's favor.

Also this year, WBC's picketing of an AIDS victim's funeral prompts a Kansas City, Mo., funeral picketing law.

After a local Episcopalian church sues WBC for alleged harassment, WBC is enjoined from picketing the church in a case that is appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In July, a verbal attack by Phelps results in two convictions for disorderly conduct and two suspended 30-day jail sentences. Local efforts to oppose WBC are stepped up with pleas to the phone company to cut off WBC's notorious fax line.

Publicly supporting the ultimately fruitless requests are Kansas Attorney General Robert Stephan — who says that cutting off Phelps' line would be "important public service" — along with a city councilman and many other victims.

A Phelps grandson, Benjamin, spits on a passerby during a picket and is convicted of misdemeanor battery. Other WBC members, found innocent in two similar harassment cases, file suit against the original complainants.

After verbally assaulting passersby at a picket, Jonathan Phelps is convicted of disorderly conduct. Although the verdict is eventually thrown out because of a minor error in the judge's instructions discovered by WBC lawyers, he is convicted in a second trial.

Also this year, Fred Phelps speaks at the Indianapolis Baptist Temple after being invited by Greg Dixon, a figure in the antigovernment "Patriot" movement.

Another series of criminal defamation charges are brought against WBC members by District Attorney Hamilton, but, according to court documents, are ultimately dismissed for a variety of reasons.

WBC member Charles Hockenbarger is convicted of criminal restraint in an earlier incident involving a Lutheran minister who was demonstrating against WBC with a sign reading, "God's Love Speaks Loudest."

Claiming the city has not done enough to protect WBC picketers, Phelps threatens to sue Topeka if he is not paid $1 million. When the city demurs, Phelps sues for $7 million.

A city planner, offered a job in Topeka, backs out after seeing a Phelps picket. Police chief Gerald Beavers resigns after being accused of coddling Phelps with a no-arrest order. Beavers is replaced by Dean Forster, whose credentials include having prevailed in an earlier suit brought against him by Phelps.

Also this year, the church puts up its first anti-homosexual web site; later, the site will become the infamous site.

Carrying signs attacking "f---," WBC members picket the funeral of slain Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, bringing Phelps' church international notoriety.

Immediately after announcing a plan to study gay issues, the Topeka Human Relations Commission is abolished by the city council. After an uproar, the commission is reinstated in a considerably weakened form.

WBC begins picketing evangelist Jerry Falwell after Falwell makes a conciliatory gesture toward a gay former aide.

In the latest WBC battle over religious tax exemptions, a WBC pickup truck is ruled taxable because it is used for political, not religious, purposes.

Charges of disorderly conduct and aggravated intimidation — related to the alleged harassment of a local lawyer in 1993 — are dropped against Phelps and his son, Jonathan, after a court rules that the Phelpses did not receive a speedy trial.

WBC continues to picket Falwell, who has called Phelps a "loon," around the country and even in Canada.

As Phelps and WBC bring the city ever-growing notoriety, the Topeka City Council adopts an anti-hate resolution.