Fred Phelps Sr., a fierce opponent of homosexuality whose protests at military funerals prompted two federal laws, died Wednesday night, a family member tells local media outlets Topeka Capital-Journal, WIBW and Kansas First News. He was 84.
Phelps headed the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., and was occasionally involved in politics. He gained national prominence for organizing protests against gays and Jews, including at military funerals.
He led protesters outside the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was killed in October 1998 for what a later trial determined was because he was gay. President Obama signed a law in October 2009 making crimes against perceived sexual orientation a hate crime.
The Anti-Defamation League called the church "a small, virulently homophobic, anti-Semitic hate group" and the Southern Poverty Law Center called it "arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America."
The group also protested military funerals by saying soldiers deserved to die for defending an irreversibly corrupt government.
President George W. Bush signed a law in May 2006 that established a 150-foot zone prohibiting picketing at military funerals within an hour of the service. Obama signed a similar law in August 2012 that increased the buffer to 300 feet and doubled the prohibition to within two hours of the service.
Phelps was himself an occasional candidate. In the Kansas Democratic U.S. Senate primary in 1992, Phelps got 31% of the vote against Gloria O'Dell, who got 69%. She eventually lost to Republican Sen. Bob Dole.
Phelps, a graduate of Washburn University law school, was disbarred from Kansas state courts in 1979 after badgering a witness in a civil case in what the state Supreme Court called "a personal vendetta."