Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of Fred Phelps, confirms that the controversial preacher has died at the age of 84. Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, the anti-gay hate group that pickets funerals, will be attending his final funeral soon.
Although Phelps was a civil rights lawyer during the Brown v Board of Education period in Topeka, he will be more remembered for his inflammatory crusade against homosexuality than for his earlier work on civil rights cases. Phelps gained national notoriety when he and his parishioners picketed the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was brutally murdered in Wyoming. Westboro Baptist Church’s cruel signs like “God hates fags” and “Matt in hell” became etched in the nation’s collective consciousness. The church has picketed a wide range of funerals to protest gay rights, including regularly demonstrating at the funerals of American military servicemen and women.
Phelps’ crusade against homosexuality however was fought in vain. During the last decade and a half, eighteen states have approved laws permitting same-sex marriage, and public opinion has also shifted strongly towards favoring marriage equality. For all his efforts to fight homosexuality, Reverend Phelps may have done more to help the LGBT equality movement than to halt it. His unvarnished bigotry was on display for all to see, and it did little to help the image of the anti-gay movement.
Anti-gay politicians seeking cover by wrapping themselves in interpretations of scripture always had to contend with the shadow of Fred Phelps looming over them holding up his offensive signs. Sure they could try to say their opposition to marriage equality was about being pro-traditional marriage not anti-gay, but Fred Phelps was standing somewhere at a funeral, reminding Americans what the anti-LGBT crowd stood for. He leaves behind a legacy of intolerance and hate that no doubt many of his followers will try to keep alive. However, Fred Phelps is now dead, and the anti-gay crusade he was an integral part of is dying as well.