The news: According to a Facebook post from Saturday night, Fred Phelps, the founder and former leader of the extreme "God Hates Fags" Westboro Baptist Church, is on his deathbed. Phelps is 84 years old and led the church based in Topeka, Kansas until he was reportedly excommunicated for unclear reasons in August 2013.
The note was posted by Phelp's estranged son Nathan, who was physically and mentally abused by Fred growing up, and as of 2006, hadn't had any contact with his father since the early '90s. Nathan later added, "I only have hearsay on the reason [for his excommunication], and two different versions, so I won't comment at this point other than to say he was moved into another house and watched over so he wouldn’t harm himself." A spokesperson for the WBC has since declined to comment on whether Phelps ever was excommunicated from the church, but another Phelps son confirmed that Phelps Sr. is, in fact, in poor condition in a hospital. The WBC has so far not made any public statements about Phelps' condition.
Who is Fred Phelps? Fred Phelps founded WBC in 1955, but it wasn't until around 1991 that the church became aggressively involved in anti-gay protests and demonstrations. A few years later in 1998, WBC came into the national spotlight when it picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured near Laramie, Wyo. then tied to a fence and left for dead. Since then, WBC has developed a small but close-knit congregation of about 40 members who've been known to travel around the country to picket soldiers' funerals and any gay-related event they can find.
The WBC has been known for some terrible things like picketing the funerals of the 19 firefighters who died in the line of duty and reacting to a 5-year-old girl in the most vile way possible. They were also recently seen trying to picket an event celebrating recently open Missouri football star Michael Sam, and last year they had elaborate plans to protest Nelson Mandela's funeral. Because of actions like these and many more, the church is widely described as a hate group and is carefully monitored by the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center. There have been some beautiful displays of people fighting back, but in general, there's little that can quiet the WBC's hate.
Moving forward: Though there are conflicting reports as to Phelps' involvement in the church in recent months, we can hope that his passing could serve as a moment for the WBC to reconsider its radical direction, change course and stop being the hate group that's so reviled everywhere they go.