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Don’t Revel in Anti-Gay Preacher’s Dying, Shepard Foundation Head Says

Westboro Baptist Church protests the NBA.
Christian Petersen, Getty Images

People should not gloat over the seriously declining health and excommunication of anti-gay activist Fred Phelps from the church he founded, the head of the Matthew Shepard Foundation says.

“There is no no moral basis whatsoever to celebrate another human being’s suffering,” says former Casper resident Jason Marsden who works as the executive director of the Denver-based foundation.

Fred Phelps Sr., who founded the Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, has been living in a hospice and “on the edge of death” since August after he lost a power struggle within the church, according to a Facebook post Saturday by his estranged son Nate Phelps.

The excommunication and now end end-of-life care finishes the 84-year-old former pastor’s and disbarred lawyer’s legend of protesting anything he believed was sympathetic to homosexuality, Nate Phelps wrote.

Casper was pivotal to Phelps’ fame.

He and Westboro had drawn some attention through the 1990s, but they gained international notoriety in October 1998 after the brutal murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in Laramie. During a miserable fall storm, Casper police set up a barricaded area in City Park across from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, where Shepard’s funeral was held. Phelps and his congregation held signs with “God Hates Fags” and “Matt in Hell.”

Marsden encountered discrimination when he came out earlier in 1998, but nothing like that, he says.

“Neither as a gay man or as a newspaper reporter of some years had I ever seen or heard anything as wrathful as Fred Phelps’ protests and his messages,” he said. “Fred Phelps was clearly gleeful about the opportunity to say ugly things and hurt the feelings of the people who had gathered to mourn Matt.”

Phelps and his small congregation protested the subsequent trial of Shepard’s killers in district court in Laramie, productions of the play “The Laramie Project,” churches of all denominations, sporting events, and especially funerals for fallen soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter protests led to a free speech lawsuit filed by a family of one of those soldiers, culminating with a U.S. Supreme Court decision finding in favor of Westboro Baptist Church.

Phelps’ behavior highlighted some of the extreme discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, Marsden says. That, coupled with people realizing friends and family members may be gay, perhaps helped reshape society’s attitudes and  increasing acceptance of gay marriage, he says.

Marsden and the Foundation disapprove of the exultant attitudes he’s sometimes witnessed concerning Phelps’ declining health, including calls to protest his eventual funeral.

“It is no cause for celebration that an elderly fellow is having severe, perhaps terminal, health problems and it is no call for anyone to stoop to abuse and unkindness simply because of an emotion we may feel that that person deserves what they got or hurt others and therefore should hurt,” he says.

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