Death of Westboro’s Phelps raises questions about church’s future

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Infamous for its anti-gay protests at military funerals, the Westboro Baptist Church now faces an uncertain future after the death of its founder, Fred Phelps.

Church officials confirmed on their website Thursday that Mr. Phelps, 84, “has gone the way of all flesh.” His estranged son Nathan said he died late Wednesday in a hospice in Topeka, Kansas.

“What’s often happened before, when an elderly leader of a notorious hate group passes away, they leave it to someone who is not competent to run it,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “We’ve seen in the past groups like National Alliance, or [Ku Klux] Klan chapters, or Aryan Nations, suffer a really irreparable tailspin when the founder passes.”

“This group is a little different for a variety of reasons,” Mr. Levin said. “They don’t want anything to do with family members who deviate from their rather extreme yet consistent way of deciding who’s appropriate for eternal damnation.”

Founded in Topeka in 1955 by Mr. Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church bills itself as “an Old School (or, Primitive)” congregation and denounces homosexuality.

Church officials do not provide membership information, but a 2011 interview posted on the church’s blog site said it has 40 members, a decline from about 80 members a few years earlier. According to media reports, the church mostly is comprised of the extended Phelps family.

Last year, four of Mr. Phelps‘ grandchildren reportedly left the church. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which designates the church as a hate group, said four of Mr. Phelps‘ 13 children also have left, including Nathan, who said in an interview earlier this week that his father was excommunicated by church elders last year.

Church leaders said they do not take outside donations and do not sell merchandise to support the congregation. Some Phelps family members work as Kansas government employees, while others serve as attorneys for the family. Between 1995 and 2010, the church was awarded more than $175,000 in legal fees and settlement agreements for cases related to their picketing and protests, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Fred Phelps really is the heart and soul of this group,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Law Center. “I think it’s very much built around him and his personality.”

While it’s tough to tell what’s going on within the church, it’s clear the public face of the church has changed in the last year, perhaps a signal of future changes.

Fred Phelps has not really been the public face of the group for a while,” said Marilyn Mayo, co-director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “Clearly, he’s the patriarch and has been the patriarch and led for a long time, but in terms of the public face of the church, it’s been other family members.”

Ms. Mayo said even after Mr. Phelps‘ death, the church wouldn’t shut down anytime soon.

“The group will continue,” she said. “The public face of the Westboro Baptist Church may change, but the tone and message can be the same.”

Mr. Levin said arguments among members could derail the church after Mr. Phelps‘ death.

“It’s more like pitfalls that affect a second generation family business,” he said. “This is a very small, family-based group with a handful of elders who run it. It’s about a very specific activity which can be easily sustained if these folks are motivated to continue it and get above the squabbling.”

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