Phelps’ Hate Seen By Some As Aiding Gay Rights
TOPEKA, Kan. -- Fred Phelps Sr. led his small Topeka church for more than two decades in a bellicose crusade against gays and lesbians, saying they were worthy of death and openly declaring - often at military funerals - that the U.S. was doomed because of its tolerance of homosexuality.
But in targeting grieving families of troops killed overseas, taunting people entering other churches and carrying signs with anti-gay slurs and vulgar language or symbols, Phelps and his Westboro Baptist congregation created public circuses that may have helped the gay-rights movement.
Following Phelps’ death Wednesday at age 84, some gay-rights advocates suggested that he and his church created sympathy for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgendered. Religious leaders who oppose gay marriage also said the pastor’s tactics clouded the debate over such issues and put them on the defensive in discussing both policy and faith.
"The world lost someone who did a whole lot more for the LGBT community than we realize or understand," said Cathy Renna, a longtime consultant to LGBT groups. "He has brought along allies who are horrified by the hate. So his legacy will be exactly the opposite of what he dreamed."
Phelps founded the church in the 1950s, and it has drawn much of its small congregation from his extended family. Its rise to national and even international notoriety began in the early 1990s, as it picketed against gays and lesbians, then protested funerals of AIDS victims and, eventually, fallen soldiers.
The protests sparked outrage, with the federal government and lawmakers in more than 40 states passing specific laws to limit the protests and local residents using various tactics - including lining up to block views of the protesters - to protect grieving families.
Conservative religious leaders regularly denounced Phelps, worried that his relentless attacks would be perceived as representing the Christian case against same-sex relationships. At the 2003 annual Southern Baptist Convention, leaders spent a session drawing a distinction between their opposition to same-sex unions and Phelps’ protests.
Phelps called his church Baptist but had no ties with the Southern Baptist Convention or any other mainstream Baptist group.
"Westboro Baptist is to Baptist Christianity what the "Book of Mormon" Broadway play was to the Latter-Day Saints," said the Rev. Russell Moore, who leads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission. "They were kind of a performance art of vitriolic hatred rather than any kind of religious organization."
Phelps professed not to care what anyone thought of his church. He said in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press that no minister could "preach the Bible" without preaching God’s hate. Westboro spokesman Steve Drain said in an email a few days before Phelps’ death that the church’s doctrines weren’t changing.