Fred Phelps dead: Westboro Church founder dies aged 84- Reactions range from revelry to poignant reflection

Published 20 March 2014  |  

(Photo: Westboro Baptist Church)
Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps

UPDATE: Fred Phelps died late Wednesday night, March 19, 2014.

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As news of Fred Phelps's approaching death broke, the internet was quick to react, with its usual waves of witty, bizarre and sometimes bad taste humour, punctuated by streams of incisive analysis and odd moments of profound reflection.

A Facebook page entitled 'Fred Phelps Death Watch' has already received over 3,700 likes. It runs with the strap-line: "While we wait for God to take him, because he hates homosexuals, let's relive some of his more memorable moments while we wait."

Brandi Lynn Wallberg, a stay-at-home mother in Wisconsin who created the page, said to USA today: "Sometimes it's easier to make light of an ugly situation and to just laugh at everything."

Many of the posts were optimistically looking forward to Fred Phelps' death. One featured a picture of a hearse and coffin, stacked alongside crates of beer with the caption: "Now all we need are party hats, streamers...and Fred."

However many of the comments were angrily criticising the morality of celebrating someone's upcoming death. Ms Wallberg has since deleted all critical comments from the group, posting this comment as an explanation:

"I just banned everyone in this thread who said we are as bad as Fred Phelps, or they disliked this page, you know why? Because I think f***ing "adults" shouldn't make outrageous claims, or stay on a page they hate out of some stubborn goober disease.

"If you don't like us, f*** off. Your approval is not required, or desired."

In USA Today, she defended the angry posts on her page as "cathartic".

"There are people who are going through that process of grieving where they're angry, and it's an outlet," she explained.

Another Facebook group that has rapidly increased in popularity recently is 'Protest Fred Phelps' Funeral'. This group was originally set up in 2012, and now has over 1,300 likes.

But one of the page's co-founders, recent university graduate Nate Thomas, says that the page is less about actually protesting, and more a symbol of people's feelings towards Phelps.

Speaking to USA Today, he said: "Our page offers Facebook users a place to vent anger and frustration or forgiveness and well wishes."

On the issue of Mr Phelp's death, Mr Thomas said: "I'm glad he will no longer be able to hurt anybody else."

Others have embraced reports of Phelps' impending death as a way of reminding people of the vast inclusiveness of God's love.

On his blog, religious and political commentator Chris Boeskool posted an open 'love' letter to Phelps, which said: "I believe the only right and rational response to a man who spends his whole life carrying around signs (literal or figurative) that say 'God Hates You' is to proclaim to the world, with our words and our life, that 'God Loves You!'"

"You are my enemy, Fred Phelps. As your life ends, I want you to know that God is running to meet you... I'm excited for you to discover how much God really loves us. Even you.

"God loves you, Fred Phelps."

A similar spirit was invoked by journalist Jeff Chu, author of 'Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America'.

On Twitter, he said: "Let's extend to Fred Phelps — and those at Westboro — the grace they will not extend to us. I wish him peace in his dying days."

Matt Staggs, blogger for the popular bizarre internet news site Disinformation, also argues that people should not be protesting Mr Phelps' funeral.  However, his reason is very different reason.

"For a man unloved and singularly unremarkable save for his hatred, the deafening silence of the public he so hoped in life to enrage will be a most suitable funeral dirge," says Mr Staggs.

"May his memory be buried in obscurity as deep and as impenetrable as the Earth that will one day – maybe soon, maybe not – cover his physical remains."

That last point may not happen though, since it's not at all clear how members of the Westboro Baptist Church deal with their dead. One WBC member has spoken out on Twitter saying: "We don't worship the dead in this church, so there'd be no public memorial or funeral to picket if any member died."

But if there was a funeral, and there were people planning to picket, the WBC would be wise to hold such a ceremony in the state of Missouri. There, the WBC would come under the protection of laws that were actually designed to protect others from them.

Last week, US District Judge Fernando Gaitan upheld a Missouri state law that made protests within 300 feet of a funeral illegal for a period one hour before the funeral begins and one hour after it ends.

Battles over this legislation began in 2006 when the Missouri state legislature passed the law in response to the WBC decision to picket the funeral of 20-year-old Army Specialist Peter Navarro who died in 2005 while serving in Iraq.

There followed legal action from Shirley Phelps-Roper, Phelps' daughter, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union. They argued that such a law contradicted the First Amendment's protections for all forms of freedom of expression.

The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals eventually agreed that provided a buffer zone between protesters and funeral guests had a predetermined size, it could be considered constitutional.

"My office has been fighting for five years to ensure that funerals for fallen soldiers can be free of disruptive protesters shouting right outside the church door," says Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, speaking to the Riverfront times.

"No parent who has lost a child should be confronted by the hate and intolerance of strangers ... [this] ruling means parents and other loved ones will have a protective boundary from protesters."

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