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Westboro founder Fred Phelps Sr. dead at 84

Published On: Mar 20 2014 10:52:23 AM CDT
Updated On: Mar 20 2014 12:04:44 PM CDT

Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, Sr., has died. He was 84.

Phelps died at a hospice care center in Topeka shortly after midnight Thursday, daughter Margie Phelps told The Associated Press.

Born  in Meridian, Miss., on Nov. 13, 1929, he founded the Westboro Baptist Church in 1955 and molded it in his fire-and-brimstone image. Most of the small congregation are members of Phelps' extended family.

Since 1991, the church has held anti-gay demonstrations that would eventually include picketing the funerals of soldiers and praying for the death of more.

Despite its "Baptist" name, Westboro is not affiliated with any larger church denomination. Most Christians criticize the congregation's harsh anti-gay rhetoric and penchant for pursuing the limelight at inappropriate moments.

According to the church's website, it has picketed more than 53,000 events, ranging from Lady Gaga concerts to funerals for slain U.S. soldiers. Typically,  a dozen or so family members -- including small children -- brandish signs that say "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

Westboro's website keeps a running tally of "people whom God has cast into hell since you loaded this page."

By the church's idiosyncratic logic, God's damnation, including the death of U.S. soldiers, is the price to pay for the country's acceptance of "sins" such as homosexuality.

Despite the protests' unpopularity, the Supreme Court upheld Westboro's right to picket military funerals on free speech grounds in 2011.

Several states, though, have passed laws aimed at keeping the controversial church at a distance from funerals.