It was about that time that Westboro's public crusade against homosexuality began. The protests soon widened and came to include funerals of AIDS victims and any other event that would draw a large crowd, from concerts of country singer Vince Gill to the Academy Awards.
He reserved special scorn for conservative ministers who preached that homosexuality was a sin but that God nevertheless loved gays and lesbians. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell died in 2007, Westboro members protested at his funeral with the same sorts of signs they held up outside services a decade earlier for Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death in 1998.
"They're all going to hell," Phelps said in a 2005 interview of Christians who refuse to condemn gay people as he did.
It wasn't just the message, but also the mocking tone that many found to be deliberately cruel. Led by Phelps, church members thanked God for roadside explosive devices and prayed for thousands more casualties, calling the deaths of military personnel killed in the Middle East a divine punishment for a nation it believed was doomed by its tolerance for gay people.
State and federal legislators responded by enacting restrictions on such protests. A Pennsylvania man whose 20-year-old Marine son died in 2006 sued the church after it picketed the son's funeral and initially won $11 million. In an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2011 that the First Amendment protects even such "hurtful" speech, though it undoubtedly added to the father's "already incalculable grief."
"The Westboro Baptist Church is probably the vilest hate group in the United the State of America," Heidi Beirich, research director for the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Associated Press in July 2011. "No one is spared, and they find people at their worst, most terrible moments of grief, and they throw this hate in their faces. It's so low."