Fred Phelps dies Wednesday at age 84, the preachers hateful protests might have created sympathy for gay rights. Religious leaders who oppose gay marriage also said the pastor’s tactics clouded the debate over such issues and put them on the defensive in discussing both policy and faith.
But in targeting grieving families of troops killed overseas, taunting people entering other churches and carrying signs with anti-gay slurs and vulgar language or symbols, Phelps and his Westboro Baptist congregation created public circuses that may have helped the gay-rights movement.
Fred Phelps Dies
Phelps’ protests sparked outrage, with the federal government and lawmakers in more than 40 states passing specific laws to limit the protests and local residents using various tactics — including lining up to block views of the protesters — to protect grieving families.
Gay-rights advocates, meanwhile, were assessing Phelps’ place in the history of their movement.
“An obscene footnote” is how Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state’s leading gay-rights group, believes Phelps and his followers will be remembered. Witt said progress began well before Westboro’s protests and will continue long after Phelps’ death.
James Esseks, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, acknowledged that he eventually saw Phelps’ protests as helping his own movement.
He would show up with his extreme anti-gay views, and a bunch of people in the middle would think, ‘If that’s what it means to be anti-gay, I want no part of it,'” Esseks said.
Conservative religious leaders regularly denounced Phelps, worried that his relentless attacks would be perceived as representing the Christian case against same-sex relationships. At the 2003 annual Southern Baptist Convention, leaders spent a session drawing a distinction between their opposition to same-sex unions and Phelps’ protests.
Fred Phelps professed not to care what anyone thought of his church. He said in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press that no minister could “preach the Bible” without preaching God’s hate. Westboro spokesman Steve Drain said in an email a few days before Phelps’ death that the church’s doctrines weren’t changing.
Phelps founded the church in the 1950s, and it has drawn much of its small congregation from his extended family. Its rise to national and even international notoriety began in the early 1990s, as it picketed against gays and lesbians, then protested funerals of AIDS victims and, eventually, fallen soldiers.
Fred Phelps Dies: Preachers Hateful Protests Might Have Helped Promote Gay Rights.
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