Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps dead at 84

BY Sarah McHaney  March 20, 2014 at 2:39 PM EST

The founder of Westboro Baptist Church — an independent Baptist church known for anti-gay protests and picketing military funerals — has died. Daughter Margie Phelps told The Associated Press that Fred Phelps died shortly after midnight Thursday. He was 84 years old.

Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kan., was made up almost entirely of Phelps’ extended family. Throughout his life he led the small congregation in believing that deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were God’s punishment for tolerance of homosexuality. The church took this belief across the country, protesting military funerals in more than 40 states.

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Phelps and his church in a major free-speech ruling. The case, Synder vs. Phelps, was filed by the family of Matthew Snyder, a fallen soldier whose funeral was picketed by Phelps and his daughters. Snyder sued Phelps for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church were protected by their First Amendment rights.

After the Supreme Court victory, their activities have since inspired a federal law on funeral picketing as well as additional laws in more than 40 states.