Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps dies

Fred Phelps Sr., founder of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, has died, according to Kansas First News.

News broke earlier this week that Phelps was on his death bed. Today, two of Phelps’ children confirmed to Kansas’ WIBW that he died before midnight on Wednesday. He was 84 years old. The cause of death is unknown.

Phelps has been a source of continuing controversy since the launch of his church’s website, GodHatesFags.com in 1999. The group claims to have held over 52,000 pickets in 921 cities, often at the funerals of gays or military veterans.

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Shirley Phelps-Roper, Westboro Baptist Church spokeswoman and daughter of the late pastor, also confirmed his death to the Topeka Capital-Journal. Most of the church’s members are members of Phelp’s extended family, the Associated Press reports (A Phelps family tree offers additional insight.)

Phelps was excommunicated by his own church in August 2013 for advocating more kindness toward its members. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports:

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 spokeswoman, in a power struggle, and Fred Phelps Sr. called for kinder treatment of fellow church members.

The activities of the Westboro Baptist Church inspired the creation of federal and state laws on funeral picketing. In a 2011 decision, the Supreme Court cited free-speech, ruling that members of the Westboro Baptist Church could not be sued for damages, according to the Associated Press.