Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

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March 20, 2014

Phelps tested free speech with anti-gay protests

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Fred Phelps did not care what you thought of his Westboro Baptist Church, nor did he care if you heard its message that society's tolerance for gay people is the root of all earthly evil.

By the time you saw one of his outrageous and hate-filled signs — "You're Going to Hell" was among the more benign — you were already doomed.

Tall, thin and increasingly spectral as he aged, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and the Westboro Baptist Church, a small congregation made up almost entirely of his extended family, tested the boundaries of the free speech guarantees by violating accepted societal standards for decency in their unapologetic assault on gays and lesbians. In the process, some believe he even helped the cause of gay rights by serving as such a provocative symbol of intolerance.

All of that was irrelevant to Phelps, who died late Wednesday. He was 84.

God is love? Heresy, he preached, and derisively insisted the Lord had nothing but anger and bile for the moral miscreants of his creation. In Phelps' reading of the Bible, God determined your fate at the moment of your creation.

Informing the damned could not save them from eternal fire, Phelps believed, but it was required for his salvation and path to paradise.

And so he and his flock traveled the country, protesting at the funerals for victims of AIDS and soldiers slain in Iraq and Afghanistan, picketing outside country music concerts and even the Academy Awards — any place sure to draw attention and a crowd — with an unrelenting message of hatred for gays and lesbians.

"Can you preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God?" he asked in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. "The answer is absolutely not. And these preachers that muddle that and use that deliberately, ambiguously to prey on the follies and the fallacious notions of their people — that's a great sin."

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