Fred Phelps, Sr.Clergyman / Religious Figure
Born: 13 November 1929
Birthplace: Meridian, Mississippi
Best known as: The patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church
Fred Phelps, Sr. is the founder and patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church, an apocalyptic religious community from Topeka, Kansas which believes that America deserves God's punishment for tolerating homosexuality. Fred Phelps grew up in Mississippi and became a tent preacher just out of high school. Ordained as a Baptist minister when he was just 17 years old, Phelps attended Christian schools in Tennessee, Alberta (Canada) and California, then settled in Topeka, Kansas in 1954. He and his wife Marge had 13 children, and Westboro's congregation is made up mostly of Phelps's children, grandchildren and relations. Phelps trained as a lawyer at Washburn University (earning a degree in 1962) and several of his children are lawyers. Early on, they discovered the power of publicity and lawsuits, and the Westboro Baptist Church is internationally famous for its members' strident protests at seemingly random places and events. Over the years they've protested against Mormons, Jews and AIDS patients, but it was their strategy of protesting at funerals for American soldiers who'd served in Iraq and Afghanistan that earned the ire of the general public. They are known for sporting signs such as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "God Hates F*gs," and for embracing the enmity of others as a sign they are doing God's work. The elderly Phelps in recent years has let his daughter Shirley be the aggressive public face of the church, even though his reported control over the congregation has led critics to refer to the Westboro Baptist Church as a cult.
Extra credit: The lawyerly habits of Fred Phelps, Sr. ran against the grain of the Kansas State Bar and he was prohibited from practicing in state courts in 1979. He continued to practice in federal courts until 1989, when he reached a settlement that would disbar him but allow his children to still practice law... The Westboro Baptist Church has been a non-profit religious organization since 1967... A 2007 documentary by K. Ryan Jones, Fall From Grace, gives an inside look at the Westboro Baptist Church and its members... The Westboro Baptist Church protests at military funerals led to the passage of the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act (2006), which forbids protests within 300 feet of any cemetery controlled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
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