He spent much of his life making unwelcome appearances at other people's funerals, with placards bearing the infamous slogan, "God Hates Fags". Yet now, as Fred Phelps Sr approaches his own death, even members of his close family have been barred – by other family members who have stayed loyal to him –from saying goodbye. According to a Facebook post by his estranged son Nathan Phelps, the 84-year-old founder of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), was excommunicated last summer by the group he himself founded almost 60 years ago, and is now "on the edge of death" at a hospice in Topeka, Kansas.
Nathan Phelps, the sixth of the pastor's 13 children, fled his abusive father and the WBC in 1980. Now 55 and an avowed atheist, he lives in Canada, where he campaigns on behalf of LGBT rights. Of his father's excommunication and imminent demise, he wrote: "I'm not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made. I feel sad for all the hurt he's caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I'm bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him."
Fred Phelps Sr, an ordained minister, established the WBC in Topeka in 1955, but only in the past two decades has the church become infamous for its practice of picketing the funerals of gay people, public figures and – since 9/11 – the US servicemen and women killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Phelps and his bitterly homophobic followers purport to believe that the deaths of US military personnel represent God's punishment for homosexuality.
The fringe Calvinist group – whose lesser-known slogans include "Fags Die, God Laughs" and "Thank God for Maimed Soldiers" – has achieved disproportionate notoriety, given that it has always consisted of fewer than 100 adherents, most members of the extended Phelps family.As a young man, Phelps was a successful civil rights lawyer, but he was disbarred by the Kansas Supreme Court in 1979 after reportedly reducing a witness to tears on the stand by accusing her of obscene sexual acts. His anti-gay crusade became common knowledge in 1998, when he picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming student who was tortured and murdered by two other men in a homophobic attack.
As well as military memorials, the WBC has picketed the funerals of public figures such as Apple founder Steve Jobs. Its members staged a demonstration at Ground Zero in New York, claiming 9/11 was divine retribution for homosexuality. It has even picketed performances of The Laramie Project, an acclaimed play about Shepard's murder. On its website, the group claims to have picketed more than 52,000 events, and reveals its plans for several more protests including upcoming Lorde and Miley Cyrus concert dates in Kansas City, Missouri.
In 2011, the US Supreme Court upheld the WBC's right to stage its demonstrations, on free speech grounds. Yet over the past decade, more than 20 members have followed Nathan Phelps by leaving the church. The group's steady deterioration was documented by filmmaker Louis Theroux in two programmes for the BBC, The Most Hated Family in America (2007) and America's Most Hated Family in Crisis (2011).
Fred Phelps Sr is thought to have preached his last Sunday sermon on 1 September 2013. In an email to the Topeka Capital-Journal on Sunday, Nathan Phelps reportedly said his father had been voted out of the group shortly thereafter, and moved to a hospice, where he had stopped eating and drinking. Another of Phelps's sons, Mark Phelps, confirmed Nathan's claims were "accurate". Steve Drain, a spokesman for the church, told the Capitol-Journal that Phelps was being treated at a hospice. However, Drain also claimed: "The source that says he's near death is not well informed."