Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church founder, dies at age 84

TOPEKA, Kan. - Controversial pastor Fred Phelps Sr., has died, according to multiple reports. He was 84.

Kansas First News, the NBC affiliate in Topeka, and CBS affiliate WIBW  both confirmed the report with Timothy Phelps, his son.

Phelps founded Westboro Baptist Church, which is widely known for its protests at military funerals and anti-gay sentiments.

It was announced last week by church spokesman Steve Drain that Phelps was being cared for in a Shawnee County facility.

Nate Phelps, an estranged son of Phelps, said in an email to The Topeka Capital-Journal last week that members of Westboro had voted Phelps out of the church.

Nate, who broke away from the church 37 years ago, told the newspaper that church members became concerned after the vote that his father might harm himself and moved him out of the church, where he and his wife had lived for years. Fred Phelps was moved into a house, where he “basically stopped eating and drinking,” Nate Phelps said.

Drain declined comment on whether Fred Phelps had been voted out of the church. Drain said Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t have a designated leader.

“We don’t discuss our internal church dealings with anybody,” Drain told the newspaper.

Members of the Westboro church, based in Topeka, frequently protest at funerals of soldiers with signs containing messages such as “Thank God for dead soldiers,” and “Thank God for 9/11,” claiming the deaths are God’s punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.

Westboro Baptist, a small group made up mostly of Phelps’ extended family, inspired a federal law and laws in numerous states limiting picketing at funerals. But in a major free-speech ruling in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the church and its members couldn’t be sued for monetary damages for inflicting pain on grieving families under the First Amendment.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights nonprofit group, has called Westboro Baptist Church a hate group.

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