Fred Phelps Dead; Local Activist Shares Conversations with Son Nathan Phelps

2004: Phelps Children Protest in Harrisburg

By Frank Pizzoli

As the LGBT community vacillates between “Ding dong the witch is dead” and more reflective reactions to the death of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, 84, Central Voice talked with Alanna Berger, co-founder of The Silent Witness organization, about her and husband Blaise’s conversations of several years ago with Fred Phelps’ son Nathan Phelps.

“We started talking to Nate four years ago when we had our first Silent Witness Peacekeepers conference,” Berger said.

Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps

Estranged from his father and the clan that forms the nucleus of the church, the organization wanted to have him speak. The group couldn’t afford him then, but kept trying to find a way to bring him here. “Blaise was finally able to get him at Millersville University for an MU Allies’ event” a couple of years ago.

Alanna Berger has been I have been in conversation with Nathan Phelps.

Alanna Berger, co-founder, The Silent witness, at 2003 Phelps protest in Harrisburg

Alanna Berger, co-founder, The Silent Witness, at 2004 Phelps protest in Harrisburg

“He believes his family should be ignored. They thrive on attention,” she told Central Voice. Fred Phelps, his son told her, has been mentally ill for decades, and his family has suffered for it.

She believes that love and compassion have swayed many of his grandchildren to leave the cult. “The count is somewhere around 15-16 at this point,” Alanna Berger said.

Historically comprised of family members, the church, founded by Phelps Sr. in the 1950s, is best known for its “God Hates Fags” signs used during public protests, including in recent years the funerals of fallen soldiers from US Middle Eastern wars.

The church’s central belief is that the slow embrace by the US of LGBT civil rights puts the nation at odds with their definition of God and morality.

For before his death, many refused to refer to Phelps as “reverend” or his group as a “church,” citing their routine hatefulness as not worthy of either title. In recent years Fred Phelps, Sr., was deposed by the group’s arcane governance structure known only to family members. He had not made public appearances.

Local Phelps

Phelps family in 2004 protest at PA State Museum

Phelps family in 2003 protest at PA State Museum

In 2004, Phelps family members, including children, protested the public screening of “Jim in Bold,” a film about a troubled young man from the south central Pennsylvania region who committed suicide. Several hundred LGBT people and their allies formed a safety ring around the Pennsylvania State Museum where the film was shown.

In 2006, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder was killed in a non-combat-related vehicle accident in Iraq. On March 10, Westboro Baptist Church picketed Snyder’s funeral in Westminster, Maryland, as it had done at thousands of other funerals throughout the US in protest of what they considered America’s increasing tolerance of homosexuality.

Picketers displayed placards such as “America is doomed”, “You’re going to hell”, “God hates you”, “Fag troops”, “Semper fi fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers”.

Albert Snyder, the father of Matthew Snyder, made a legal claim against the Phelps family hoping to block their protest at his son’s funeral. Known as Snyder v. Phelps, the case ended up before the US Supreme Court, which held that speech on a public sidewalk, about a public issue, cannot be liable for a tort of emotional distress, even if the speech is found to be “outrageous”. By an 8-1 vote, the top court by 8-1 decided the protest was a First Amendment issue.

On March 30, 2010, the court further ordered Albert Snyder to pay the court costs for the Phelps defendants, an amount totaling $16,510. People all over the country, including political commentator Bill O’Reilly agreed to cover the costs, pending appeal. O’Reilly also pledged to support all of Snyder’s future court costs against the Phelps.

In early March, Phelps’ estranged son, Nathan Phelps, has reported on his Facebook page that his father was near death.

Phelps death brings mixed reactions from the LGBT community. Some activists and advocates are calling for a protest of Phelps’ funeral. Others are advising caution.

Last February, Marge Phelps, Phelps’ daughter, told Huffington Post editor Nick Wing that memorials were not in line with their church policy. Her communication said: We don’t worship the dead in this church, so there’d be no public memorial or funeral to picket if any member died. — GodHatesYourStars (@WBCMargie) February 4, 2014.

Although memorials are not within their church’s policy, given the number of times the Phelps’ family has shown up at the funerals and memorials of others, it is apparently within their church’s policy to protest funerals and memorials.

Family affair

The private relationships of the Phelps family were as controversial as their public profile.

Church elders eventually excommunicated Phelps after a power struggle in which Shirley Phelps-Roper lost a battle with male elders for control.

The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that Fred Phelps Sr. was excommunicated from the church after advocating a kinder approach between church members. The excommunication occurred after the formation of a board of male elders in the church. The board had defeated Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church’s longtime spokesperson, in a power struggle, and Fred Phelps Sr. called for kinder treatment of fellow church members. The board then ejected Phelps Sr. The power struggle and excommunication was revealed by Nathan Phelps, who broke away from the church 37 years ago.

Nate Phelps said he observed that Shirley Phelps-Roper had fallen from grace and wasn’t as visible in the church as she had been while Drain and Tim Phelps had become more visible. In recent months, calls made to Shirley Phelps-Roper have been answered by Drain. Some observers have speculated that with the takeover by male members of the family, there may be a “tell all” book published down the road.

The elder’s decision had a big impact on Phelps Sr., Nate Phelps said.

“They took the one thing that meant everything to the man,” Nate Phelps said, referring to Phelps Sr.’s tie to the church. “That old man and his reason to exist have gone away.”

Right before his death, church representative Steve Drain refused to talk about the excommunication of Fred Phelps Sr. “We don’t discuss our internal church dealings with anybody,” he said.

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