Fred Waldron Phelps, Sr. (born November 13, 1929) is an American pastor heading the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), an independent Baptist church based in Topeka, Kansas. Phelps is a disbarred lawyer, founder of the Phelps Chartered law firm, and a former civil rights activist. A member of the Democratic Party, he has occasionally run for political office. In the election for United States Senator for Kansas in 1992, he received 49,416 votes (30.8%) in the Democratic primary, coming in second after Gloria O'Dell (who subsequently lost to later presidential candidate Bob Dole).

Phelps's followers frequently picket various events, such as military funerals, gay pride gatherings, high-profile political gatherings, university commencement ceremonies, performances of The Laramie Project, mainstream Christian gatherings and concerts with which he had no affiliation, arguing it is their sacred duty to warn others of God's anger.

In response to Phelps' protests at military funerals, President George W. Bush signed the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act into law in May 2006,[1] and, in April 2007, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius signed into law a bill establishing a 150-foot no-picketing buffer zone around funerals.[2] As of April 2006, 8 other states have enacted similar laws and 10 more were considering it. On August 6, 2012, President Obama signed Pub.L. 112-154, the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012[3] which, among other things, requires a 300-foot and 2-hour buffer zone around military funerals.[4]

He is known for the slogans that he and his ministry use against people he deems sinful; his church is built around a core of anti-homosexual theology, with many of their activities stemming from the slogan "God hates fags", which is also the name of the group's main website. Gay rights supporters have denounced him as a producer of anti-gay propaganda and violence-inspiring hate speech.[5] The church is considered a hate group and monitored by the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center.[6][7]



Phelps was born in Meridian, Mississippi, the elder of two children to Catherine Idalette Johnston and Fred Wade Phelps. His father was a railway police man for the Columbus and Greenville Railway and his mother was a homemaker.[8]

On September 3, 1935, when Phelps was five years old, his mother died of esophageal cancer at the age of 28.[8] After the death of their mother, Phelps and his younger sister were raised by their great-aunt Irene Jordan in Meridian. Jordan later died in a car accident in 1950. On December 25, 1944, Phelps' father married Olive Briggs, and Phelps and his sister were raised by their father and stepmother in Meridian.[8]

Activities and statements

Main article: Westboro Baptist Church

All of Phelps' recent actions were in conjunction with the congregation of Westboro Baptist Church. In 2001, Phelps estimated that the WBC had held 40 pickets a week for the previous 10 years.[9] Because of his advanced age, Phelps has taken a reduced role in the activities of the church and his family.[10]

Family life

Nathan Phelps, estranged son of Fred Phelps, claims he never had a relationship with his abusive father when he was growing up and that the Westboro Baptist Church is an organization for his father to "vent his rage and anger."[11] He alleges that, in addition to hurting others, his father used to physically abuse his wife and children by beating them with his fists and with the handle of a mattock to the point of bleeding.[11][12] Phelps' brother Mark has supported and repeated Nathan's claims of physical abuse by their father.[13] Since 2004, over 20 members of the church, mostly family members, have left the church and his family.[10]

Religious beliefs

Phelps describes himself as an Old School Baptist, and states that he holds to all of the Five Points of Calvinism. Phelps particularly highlights John Calvin's doctrine of unconditional election, the belief that God has elected certain people for salvation before birth, and limited atonement, the belief that Christ only died for the elect, and condemns those who believe otherwise. Despite Phelps' claims of being a Primitive Baptist, he was ordained by a Southern Baptist church and is rejected and generally condemned by Primitive Baptists.[14]

Phelps views Arminianism (particularly the views of the Methodist theologian William Munsey) as a "worse blasphemy and heresy than that heard in all filthy Saturday night fag bars in the aggregate in the world". In addition to John Calvin, Phelps admires Martin Luther and Bob Jones, Sr., and has approvingly quoted a statement by Jones that "what this country needs is 50 Jonathan Edwardses turned loose in it."[15] Phelps particularly holds to equal ultimacy, believing that "God Almighty makes some willing and he leads others into sin", a view he says is Calvinist.[16] However, many theologians would identify him as a Hyper-Calvinist (Hyper meaning "beyond" or "above" not "extreme").[17]

Phelps is against common Baptist practices like Sunday school meetings, Bible colleges and seminaries, and multi-denominational crusades, although he attended Bob Jones University and worked with Billy Graham in his Los Angeles Crusade before Graham changed his views on a literal Hell and salvation. Phelps considers Graham the greatest false prophet since Balaam, and also condemns large church leaders such as Robert Schuller and Jerry Falwell, in addition to all current Catholics.

Political views


In the movie Hatemongers, members of the Westboro Baptist Church state their children were being "accosted" by homosexuals in Gage Park, about half-a-mile from the Phelps' home (and a mile northwest of the Westboro Church). Shirley Phelps-Roper says that, in the late 1980s, Fred Phelps witnessed a homosexual attempting to lure her then five-year-old son Joshua into some shrubbery. After several complaints to the local government about the large amount of homosexual sex occurring in the park, with no resulting action, the Phelpses put up signs warning of homosexual activity. This resulted in much negative attention for the family. When the Phelpses called on local churches to speak against the activity in Gage Park, the churches also lashed out against the Phelps family, leading to the family protesting homosexuality on a regular basis.[18]

In 2005, Phelps and his family, along with several other local congregations, held a signature drive to bring about a vote to repeal two city ordinances that added sexual orientation to a definition of hate crimes and banned the city itself from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. Enough signatures were collected to bring the measure to a vote.[19] Topeka voters defeated the repeal measure on March 1, 2005, by a 53–47% margin. In the same election, Phelps' granddaughter Jael was an unsuccessful candidate for the Topeka City Council, seeking to replace Tiffany Muller, the first openly gay member of the Council.[20]

Support for Al Gore

Phelps supported Al Gore in the 1988 Democratic Party presidential primary election.;[21] in his 1984 Senate race, Gore had opposed a "gay bill of rights" and stated that homosexuality was not something that "society should affirm"), a position he had changed by 2000 when he had the support of homosexual advocacy groups for his presidential campaign. Phelps has stated that he supported Gore because of these earlier comments.[22] According to Phelps, members of the Westboro Baptist Church helped run Gore's 1988 campaign in Kansas.

Opposition to Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Hillary Rodham Clinton

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Phelps criticized Hillary Clinton during a speech he gave endorsing Bill Clinton's presidential campaign at the University of Kansas on October 14, 1992. In 1996 Phelps and the Westboro church opposed Clinton's re-election because of the administration's support for gay rights. The entire Westboro congregation picketed a 1997 inaugural ball,[23] denouncing Vice President Al Gore as a "famous fag pimp" (Gore had changed his positions on gay rights since 1984). In 1998, Westboro picketed the funeral of Gore's father, screaming vulgarities at Gore and telling him, "your dad's in Hell".

Lawsuit against Westboro Baptist Church

Main article: Snyder v. Phelps

On March 10, 2006, WBC picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, who died in combat in Iraq on March 3, 2006.[24] The Snyder family sued Fred Phelps for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.[25] On October 31, 2007, WBC, Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis, were found liable for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A federal jury awarded Snyder's father $2.9 million in compensatory damages, then later added a decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and an additional $2 million for causing emotional distress (a total of $10.9 million).[26] The organization said it wouldn't change its message because of the verdict.

The lawsuit named Albert Snyder, father of Matthew Snyder, as the plaintiff and Fred W. Phelps, Sr.; Westboro Baptist Church, Inc.; Rebekah Phelps-Davis; and Shirley Phelps-Roper as defendants, alleging that they were responsible for publishing defamatory information about the Snyder family on the Internet, including statements that Albert and his wife had "raised (Matthew) for the devil" and taught him "to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery". Other statements denounced them for raising their son Catholic. Snyder further complained the defendants had intruded upon and staged protests at his son's funeral. The claims of invasion of privacy and defamation arising from comments posted about Snyder on the Westboro website were dismissed on First Amendment grounds, but the case proceeded to trial on the remaining three counts.

Albert Snyder, the father of LCpl Matthew A. Snyder, testified:

They turned this funeral into a media circus and they wanted to hurt my family. They wanted their message heard and they didn't care who they stepped over. My son should have been buried with dignity, not with a bunch of clowns outside.[27]

In his instructions to the jury, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett stated that the First Amendment protection of free speech has limits, including vulgar, offensive and shocking statements, and that the jury must decide "whether the defendant's actions would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, whether they were extreme and outrageous and whether these actions were so offensive and shocking as to not be entitled to First Amendment protection".

WBC sought a mistrial based on alleged prejudicial statements made by the judge and violations of the gag order by the plaintiff's attorney. An appeal was also sought by the WBC. WBC has said that it is thankful for the verdict.

On February 4, 2008, Bennett upheld the ruling but reduced the punitive damages from $8 million to $2.1 million. The total judgment then stood at $5 million. Court liens were ordered on church buildings and Phelps' law office in an attempt to ensure that the damages were paid.[28]

An appeal by WBC was heard on September 24, 2009. The federal appeals court ruled in favor of Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church, stating that their picket near the funeral of LCpl Matthew A. Snyder is protected speech and did not violate the privacy of the service member's family, reversing the lower court's $5 million judgment. On March 30, 2010, the federal appeals court ordered Albert Snyder to pay the court costs for the Westboro Baptist Church, an amount totaling $16,510.[29] Political commentator Bill O'Reilly agreed on March 30 to cover the costs, pending appeal.[30]

A writ of certiorari was granted on an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, and the oral argument for the case took place on October 6, 2010. Margie Phelps, one of Fred Phelps' children, represented the Westboro Baptist Church.[31]

The Court ruled in favor of Phelps in an 8–1 decision, holding that their speech related to a public issue, and was disseminated on a public sidewalk.[32]

People targeted by Fred Phelps

Since the early 1990s, Phelps has targeted several individuals and groups in the public eye for criticism by the Westboro Baptist Church.

Prominent examples include President Ronald Reagan, Princess Diana, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, National Football League star Reggie White, Sonny Bono, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, atheists, Muslims, murdered college student Matthew Shepard, the late children's television host Fred Rogers, the late Australian actor Heath Ledger, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, political commentator Bill O'Reilly, Jews,[33] Catholics, Australians,[34] Swedes, the Irish and US soldiers killed in Iraq. He has also targeted the Joseph Estabrook Elementary School in Lexington, Massachusetts, center of the David Parker controversy. In 2006, they planned a protest at the funeral for the murdered children of the West Nickel Mines School, but called it off, opting to spread their messages on a local radio station instead.[35] In 2007 he stated that he would target the late Jerry Falwell's funeral.[36]

Phelps' daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, has appeared on Fox News Channel, defending the WBC and attacking homosexuality. She and her children have also appeared on the Howard Stern radio show attempting to promote their agenda and church. However, every time they appear, they are mocked and taunted, and made the subjects of ridicule.

Phelps' followers have repeatedly protested the University of Kansas School of Law's graduation ceremonies.

In August 2007, in the wake of the Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse, Phelps and his congregation stated that they will protest at the funerals of the victims. In a statement, the church said that Minneapolis is the "land of the Sodomite damned".[37]

Other responses

WBC is listed as a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.[6][7]

To counter the Phelps' protests at funerals of soldiers, a group of motorcycle riders has formed the Patriot Guard Riders to provide a nonviolent, volunteer buffer between the protesters and mourners.[38]

On August 28, 2010, members of the Westboro Baptist Church were the apparent target of a pepper spray attack while protesting a block from the funeral of fallen US Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Bock in Omaha, Nebraska.[39]

See also


  1. Pickler, Nedra (May 30, 2006), Bush Says U.S. Must Honor War Dead, <>. Retrieved on 10 December 2012 
  2. Carpenter, Tim (March 20, 2007), Panel Sets Buffer Zone, <>. Retrieved on 10 December 2012 
  3. Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, U.S. House of Representatives (accessed 2013-02-21)
  4. Wing, Nick (August 6, 2012). Honoring America's Veterans Act Signed By Obama, Restricting Westboro Military Funeral Protests. The Huffington Post. Retrieved on 2013-01-16.
  5. Lauerman, Kerry (1999), The Man Who Loves To Hate, <>. Retrieved on 10 December 2012 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Anti-Defamation League, Westboro Baptist Church, <>. Retrieved on 10 December 2012 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Potok, Mark (2006), “Hate Groups Increase Numbers, Unite Against Immigrants”, Intelligence Report (Southern Poverty Law Center) (no. 121), <> 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Taschler, Joe (August 3, 1994), The Transformation of Fred Phelps, <>. Retrieved on 11 December 2012 
  9. Topeka: A City Bulled into Submission by the Westboro Baptist Church”, Intelligence Report (Southern Poverty Law Center) (no. 101), 2001, <> 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Arnett, Dugan. Megan Phelps-Roper of Westboro Baptist Church: An heir to hate, Kansas City Star, November 21, 2012.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Anderson, Ric (July 23, 2006), Phelps' Son Speaks Out, <>. Retrieved on 20 January 2013 
  12. CNN Wire Staff (March 17, 2011), Estranged Son of Anti-Gay Westboro Pastor Says Father Does 'Evil', <>. Retrieved on 10 December 2012 
  13. Kendall, Justin. "The New Fred", The Pitch, November 2, 2006. Retrieved on January 20, 2013. 
  14. The gospel according to Fred Phelps – The York Daily Record
  15. Debate with John Rankin, opening statement. Retrieved on July 9, 2010.
  16. Debate with John Rankin, Q&A session. Retrieved on July 9, 2010.
  17. Bryson, George (January 1, 2004), The Dark Side of Calvinism: The Calvinist Caste System, Calvary Chapel Publishing, pp. 55–56, ISBN 978-1-931667-88-3, <>. Retrieved on 10 December 2012 
  18. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named ocweekly1999
  19. Hrenchir, Tim (February 27, 2005), Issue Becomes a Line in the Sand for Some, <>. Retrieved on 10 December 2012 
  20. Topeka Voters Reject Repeal of Anti-Bias Law, March 2, 2005, <>. Retrieved on 10 December 2012 
  21. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named tooley2006
  22. Hogenson, Scott (July 7, 2008), Gore Sought Support of 'God Hates Fags' Creator in '88, <>. Retrieved on 10 December 2012 
  23. Friedman, Cindy (January 27, 1997). NewsWrap. Retrieved on December 10, 2012.
  24. Savage, David (March 9, 2010). Supreme Court to Hear Case on Protests. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on December 11, 2012.
  25. Connolly, Katie. "Supreme Court: Kagan's philosophy hard to define", BBC Online, May 10, 2010. Retrieved on December 11, 2012. 
  26. "Jury awards father $11M in funeral case", USA Today, November 1, 2007. Retrieved on December 11, 2012. 
  27. Marso, Andy (March 2, 2011), Supreme Court Upholds Anti-Gay Church's Protest Rights in Md. Case, <>. Retrieved on 22 December 2012 
  28. "Damages Reduced in Funeral Protest Case", The Seattle Times, February 5, 2008. Retrieved on December 11, 2012. 
  29. "Father of Dead Marine Ordered To Pay Legal Fees of Westboro Baptist Church Protesters", The Huffington Post, May 29, 2010. Retrieved on December 11, 2012. 
  30. Lamothe, Dan (April 5, 2010). Snyder-Phelps Fight has Many Twists, Turns. Marine Corps Times. Retrieved on December 11, 2012.
  31. "Court Hears 'Thank God for Dead Soldiers' Case", MSN, October 6, 2010. Retrieved on December 11, 2012. 
  32. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named SC
  33. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named ITOW
  34. God Hates Australia. Retrieved on December 11, 2012.
  35. Bonisteel, Sara (October 4, 2006). Anti-Gay Kansas Church Cancels Protests at Funerals for Slain Amish Girls. Fox News Channel. Retrieved on December 11, 2012.
  36. Anti-Gay Kansas Church Members Plan to Picket Falwell Funeral. Fox News Channel (May 17, 2007). Retrieved on December 11, 2012.
  37. Black, Eric "Fred Phelps is Coming", Minnesota Monitor, August 7, 2007.
  38. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named abrams2006
  39. Bates, Theunis (August 29, 2010). Westboro Baptist Church Protesters Are Pepper Sprayed at Marine's Funeral in Omaha. AOL News. Retrieved on December 12, 2012.

External links

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