Founder of controversial Westboro church dies

 

Fred Phelps, the founder of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, died Wednesday at the age of 84.

Reports did not specify Phelps’s cause of death.

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His church, which is not affiliated with the official network of Baptist churches, protested hundreds of military funerals during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with signs including gay slurs and messages such as "thank God for dead soldiers" and "America is doomed."

Phelps and his church believed the United States was being punished for acceptance of gay rights.

The church was sued in 2006 for causing emotional distress after protesting at the funeral of Marine Matthew Snyder. A judge initially ordered the church to pay damages to the family, but that ruling was overturned by an appellate court.

The case reached the Supreme Court, which in 2011 said in an 8-1 ruling that the protests were protected by the First Amendment.

The court decision forced lawmakers and advocates to take sides in a thorny debate over First Amendment rights.

A number of news organization filed friend of the court briefs urging the justices to protect free speech. Forty-two Democratic senators at the time called on the court to ban the church from protesting at funerals.

“Westboro’s funeral picketing is certainly hurtful and its contribution to public discourse may be negligible. But Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials," Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion.

The ruling found states are allowed to set up buffer zones around funerals, which many states have taken up, including Maryland, where the protest in the case took place.

Justice Samuel Alito was the only member to dissent.

“Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case," he wrote.