With the death of Rev. Fred Phelps, the vitriol-spouting leader of Westboro Baptist Church who picketed military funerals and espoused hatred for gays, the future of his church is hazy.
Phelps, 84, died late Wednesday, according to online postings of his church. The cause of death was not reported.
"It's unclear whether this so-called church will survive the death of its founder," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has closely monitored the group. "In some ways, it was a cult of personality."
Phelps, who started the church in Topeka, Kan., in 1955, would go on to launch a campaign to picket the funerals of gay men and lesbians with placards that read "God Hates Fags." Congregants drew the harshest criticism for picketing the funerals of fallen U.S. military personnel. Phelps said the deaths were God's way of punishing a country that enabled same-sex relationships.
"It was a special brand of offensiveness," said the Rev. Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "People were shocked by it and horrified by it."
She said she foresees the church fizzling now and, she hopes, its members finding "true religion." Today, Westboro has a few dozen followers, made up almost entirely of Phelps' extended family, Potok said.
Church officials did not respond to several interview requests.
Phelps gained national notoriety when he led protesters outside the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was killed in October 1998. A trial determined that the killing was motivated by the fact that he was gay.
Westboro's protests at military funerals prompted federal legislation. 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. President 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.
Al Snyder, father of slain Marine Matt Snyder, sued Phelps and the church after members picketed his son's funeral. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2011 that Phelps and his congregants had the right to picket and protest.
"I'm not jumping for joy but I'm certainly glad the world is rid of someone so evil," Snyder said. "He inflicted a lot of pain on a lot of people and he was a very sick man."
The church has suffered internal turmoil in recent years. Four of Phelps' 13 children were estranged from their father. One of them, Nathan Phelps, has gone on speaking tours denouncing the church's beliefs.
As Phelps aged and weakened, daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper became the church's spokeswoman, carrying on the anti-gay rhetoric, Potok said.
Kansas news media recently reported that a board of eight church elders excommunicated Phelps from his own church last year for allegedly advocating a "kinder approach" to church members.
Responding to his father's death, Nathan Phelps told the Daily Mail in Great Britain in an interview posted Thursday that when the elders excommunicated his father, they moved him to another home, where he stopped eating and drinking. Nathan Phelps, who now advocates gay and lesbian rights, said he believed the church will unravel following his father's death. Three members have left in recent weeks and more desertions are on the way, he told the British tabloid.
"There will be a tipping point where they cannot lose any more" members, he said in the interview.
In a recent post on one of its websites, Westboro leaders downplayed the inner strife. "Listen carefully; there are no power struggles in the Westboro Baptist Church," it says, "and there is no human intercessor – we serve no man, and no hierarchy, only the Lord Jesus Christ."
Another post promised more rhetoric from members: "This is still a nation and world awash in sin. We will still warn you of this condition, out of our love and fear of the Lord, and out of our love for our neighbors."
But Potok said he thinks the end is near for Westboro Baptist Church. Past extreme-right groups, such as the National Alliance and Aryan Nations, both neo-Nazi groups, collapsed quickly after the death of their leaders, he said.
"When you build a group so much around the personality and politics of a single leader, it's sometimes difficult to keep that group alive when that leader dies," Potok said. "It's possible the church could fall apart in the next year or two."
Contributing: Bart Jansen