TOPEKA, Kan. - The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., who founded a Kansas church widely known for its protests at military funerals and anti-gay sentiments, is in a care facility, according to a church spokesman.
Phelps, 84, is being cared for in a Shawnee County facility, Westboro Baptist Church spokesman Steve Drain said today.
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 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.
Nate Phelps, an estranged son of Fred Phelps, also said in an email to The Topeka Capital-Journal that members of Westboro have voted Fred Phelps out of the church.
Drain declined comment today on whether Fred Phelps had been voted out of the church. Drain said Westboro Baptist Church doesn't have a designated leader.
A Kansas gay rights group today urged the gay community to respect the privacy of the "notoriously anti-LGBT" pastor if his health is declining.
Phelps and the members of his church have "harassed" the grieving families of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Kansans and others, Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said. But "this is our moment as a community to rise above the sorrow, anger, and strife he sowed, and to show the world we are caring and compassionate people who respect the privacy and dignity of all."