Reports that Fred Phelps Sr. is in hospice care and perhaps has been excommunicated has led to speculation about whether the Westboro Baptist Church he founded could fade away or change tactics. The church is known worldwide for picketing the funerals of military personnel and prominent people to promote its harshly antigay doctrines.
Churches organized around a single strong personality typically have trouble when their leader either dies or departs, experts who track religious movements say. Mr. Phelps's son, Nate Phelps, has said his father is near death.
But Westboro could survive and remain active, says Barry Crawford, a religion professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, where Westboro is located.
"The typical pattern is for groups that are energized by a charismatic leader, they really just fade away when the charismatic leader dies or somehow turns up missing," he says. "In this case, I don’t know if that will happen or not. There seems to be an awful lot of energy there."
Though the church has only 15 to 20 members, “They have this missionary zeal. They think they are doing God’s will,” he adds. “They are very tenacious.”
Most of the members are family, with very few converts. Nine of Phelps's 13 children are members. The church also has children involved, which Professor Crawford says suggests the church “will probably be with us for a long time.
The church is notorious for routinely picketing funerals of military veterans, gay activists, and disaster victims in an effort to denounce homosexuals and abortion rights. “God Hates Fags” has become its flagship phrase. The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., classifies the church as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”
The church has also become known for its legal battles. In a landmark 2011 ruling, the US Supreme Court held that the church cannot be sued for damages by grieving families because its free speech rights are protected under the First Amendment.
The church operates out of the Phelps home in a Topeka neighborhood surrounded by security gates, cameras, and a large banner advertising the church’s website. Phelps started the church in 1955, but the three major wings of the larger Baptist Church have since condemned the church's actions and extreme interpretations of the Bible, making Westboro “very insular” and “not connected with any other church,” says Hans Wiersma, a religion professor at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
“It’s a church that is very focused on one issue and their prescription, or solution, to the perceived problem is extreme,” he says. “That’s the danger when you have just one person running the show, and you don’t have any accountability with any other groups or association or hierarchy. They can just become this obsessed group.”
Nate Phelps announced his father is dying on his Facebook page over the weekend. Church spokesman Steve Drain has rejected Nate Phelps's claims, though he did tell the Associated Press that the elder Phelps is being cared for in a Shawnee County facility and “is having some health problems.”
“He’s an old man, and old people get health problems,” Mr. Drain said.
The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that Fred Phelps was excommunicated last August when he advocated "kinder treatment of fellow church members," according to the newspaper. It says a board of male elders took over after a power struggle with one of Phelps's daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper.
Church doctrine holds that women are subservient to men, meaning the next leader could not be a woman, Nate Phelps told the Capital-Journal. He said his brother Tim Phelps or Drain will likely take over.
Replacing the father should be easy “as long as my siblings could get up and do the same job as the old man has done,” he said. “They’ve heard [Fred Phelps preach] a million times.”