ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Anti-Gay activist Fred Phelps, a widely reviled figure, has died. Phelps led the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Its members are infamous for picketing funerals with signs proclaiming God's hatred of gay people. Their targets also include the United States and its men and women in uniform.
Frank Morris, of member station KCUR, has a report.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: For almost 24 years, Fred Phelps and his small group of followers have made themselves infamous, showing up at natural disasters, mass killings and funerals.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
SHIRLEY PHELPS-ROPER: (Singing) Oh, wicked land of sodomites...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, commie.
PHELPS-ROPER: (Singing) ...you are the...
MORRIS: That's Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of 13 Phelps siblings, at a service for Army Specialist Lucas Frantz, who was killed in Iraq eight and a half years ago. By her count, the church has conducted some 52,000 pickets. Brandy Sacco suffered one of them in 2005 when she buried her husband, Sergeant Dominic Sacco.
BRANDY SACCO: They held their disgusting signs up and they were yelling, Brandy, your husband's in hell. God hates you. God hates Dominic.
FRED PHELPS: That's my job, man, to cause this evil country to know her abominations.
MORRIS: Fred Phelps, speaking here eight years ago in the paneled office of his small Topeka church. In his mind, every catastrophe, attack or misfortune was God's retribution for America's failure to castigate gays.
PHELPS: We're insisting that this country take the cup of the fury of God's wrath, we're putting it to their lips, and we're making them drink it.
MORRIS: But God's wrath wasn't always top of mind for Phelps. 50 years ago, at the height of the civil rights struggle, one young Kansas lawyer stood out.
DOUG BONNEY: Fred Phelps, he was one of the first lawyers in Kansas after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 who would take a plaintiffs case.
MORRIS: Doug Bonney directs the ACLU of Kansas.
BONNEY: There were very few lawyers in the early days who would take these cases, and there was plenty of race discrimination to be remedied in Kansas.
PHELPS-ROPER: That so offended my dad. He didn't like it, he spoke out against it, and he had a Bible basis for that.
MORRIS: Shirley Phelps-Roper says her father, who grew up in Mississippi, attacked racial discrimination with the same spark and fervor he later showed against gay rights. Phelps was eventually disbarred and it was a few years after that when he found his new calling as an anti-gay crusader.
PHELPS-ROPER: I'm not trying to suggest to you that we are righteous, good, perfect or otherwise. We're just like everyone else. It's the necessity that God put upon us to do this work, and my dad did it and he was faithful in it. And he didn't do it free. He paid in dear coin.
MORRIS: Newspaper accounts quoting an estranged son report that last year, church members forced Phelps out of the church he founded. But Thomas Witt, who runs the gay rights group Equality Kansas, says he doesn't want Phelps' death to be an occasion for spectacle.
THOMAS WITT: We are asking the community to let it pass without protest and without celebration. It's what we asked of Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps for decades: Let us grieve our lost loved ones in peace.
MORRIS: In preaching a message of hate, Fred Phelps became one of the most hated men in America and unified many not in his beliefs but against his tactics. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.