Phelps tested free speech with anti-gay protests

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FILE – In this March 19, 2006 file photo, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. preaches at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Phelps, the founder of the Kansas church known for anti-gay protests and pickets at military funerals, died Thursday, March 20, 2014. He was 84. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

FILE – In this March 19, 2006 file photo, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. preaches at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Phelps, the founder of the Kansas church known for anti-gay protests and pickets at military funerals, died Thursday, March 20, 2014. He was 84. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

FILE – In this March 19, 2006 file photo, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. preaches at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Phelps, the founder of the Kansas church known for anti-gay protests and pickets at military funerals, died Thursday, March 20, 2014. He was 84. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

FILE – In this March 19, 2006 file photo, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., center, sits in prayer at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Phelps, the founder of the Kansas church known for anti-gay protests and pickets at military funerals, died Thursday, March 20, 2014. He was 84. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

FILE – In this July 1, 2007 file phtoo, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. prepares to protest outside the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Phelps, the founder of the Kansas church known for anti-gay protests and pickets at military funerals, died Thursday, March 20, 2014. He was 84. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Fred Phelps did not care what you thought of his Westboro Baptist Church, nor did he care if you heard its message that society’s tolerance for gay people is the root of all earthly evil.

By the time you saw one of his outrageous and hate-filled signs — “You’re Going to Hell” was among the more benign — you were already doomed.

Tall, thin and increasingly spectral as he aged, the Rev. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, a small congregation made up almost entirely of his extended family, tested the boundaries of the free speech guarantees by violating accepted societal standards for decency in their unapologetic assault on gays and lesbians. In the process, some believe he even helped the cause of gay rights by serving as such a provocative symbol of intolerance.

All of that was irrelevant to Phelps.

God is love? Heresy, he preached, and derisively insisted the Lord had nothing but anger and bile for the moral miscreants of his creation. In Phelps’ reading of the Bible, God determined your fate at the moment of your creation.

Informing the damned could not save them from eternal fire, Phelps believed, but it was required for his salvation and path to paradise.

And so he and his flock traveled the country, protesting at the funerals for victims of AIDS and soldiers slain in Iraq and Afghanistan, picketing outside country music concerts and even the Academy Awards — any place sure to draw attention and a crowd — with an unrelenting message of hatred for gays and lesbians.

“Can you preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God?” he asked in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. “The answer is absolutely not. And these preachers that muddle that and use that deliberately, ambiguously to prey on the follies and the fallacious notions of their people — that’s a great sin.”

The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. died around midnight Wednesday, his daughter Margie Phelps told The Associated Press. He was 84.

For those who didn’t like the message or the tactics, Phelps and his family had only disdain. “They need to drink a frosty mug of shut-the-hell-up and avert their eyes,” his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, once told a group of Kansas lawmakers.

The activities of Phelps’ church, unaffiliated with any larger denomination, inspired a federal law and laws in more than 40 states limiting protests and picketing at funerals. He and a daughter were even barred from entering Britain for inciting hatred.

But in a major free-speech ruling in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the church and its members were protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and could not be sued for monetary damages for inflicting pain on grieving families.

Yet despite that legal victory, some gay rights advocates believe all the attention Phelps generated served to advance their cause.

Sue Hyde, a staff member at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said plenty of churches and ministers preach a message that attacks gay people. But Phelps and his family had “taken this out on the streets,” forcing people to confront their own views and rousing a protective instinct in parents and friends of gays and lesbians.

“It’s actually a wonderful recruiting tool for a pro-equality, pro-social acceptance movement,” she said. “To the Phelps family, that is not particularly important or relevant. They are not there to save us. They are there to advise us that we are doomed.”

Once seen as the church’s unchallengeable patriarch, Phelps’ public visibility waned as he grew older and less active in the church’s pickets, with daughters Shirley Phelps-Roper and Margie Phelps — an attorney who argued the church’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court — most often speaking for Westboro. In the fall of 2013, even they were replaced by a church member not related to Phelps by blood as Westboro’s chief spokesman.

In Phelps’ later years, the protests themselves were largely ignored or led to counter-demonstrations that easily shouted down Westboro’s message. A motorcycle group known as the Patriot Guard arose to shield mourners at military funerals from Westboro’s notorious signs. At the University of Missouri in 2014, hundreds of students gathered to surround the handful of church members who traveled to the campus after football player Michael Sam came out as gay.

Phelps’ final weeks were shrouded in mystery. A long-estranged son, Nate Phelps,

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