Fred Phelps has died. He was the founding pastor of a small American church known for its virulently anti-gay protests at public events, including military funerals.
A spokesman for the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas Thursday said the 84-year-old Phelps died of natural causes late Wednesday. He did not provide the cause of death.
Phelps founded the church in 1955 and molded it in his fire-and-brimstone image. Many members of the small congregation are related to Phelps through blood or marriage.
Under Phelps' leadership, Westboro members have preached that every calamity to befall the United States, from natural disasters to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut is God's punishment for the country's acceptance of homosexuality.
Phelps and his followers traveled the country, protesting at the funerals for victims of AIDS and soldiers slain in Iraq and Afghanistan, picketing outside music concerts and even the Academy Awards.
Typically, a dozen or so church members, including young children, brandish signs that say "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."
The church won a major legal victory in 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Westboro's right to picket military funerals on free speech grounds. The court also ruled that the church could not be sued for inflicting pain on grieving families.
Phelps' final weeks were shrouded in mystery. A long-estranged son, Nate Phelps, said earlier this month that his father had been voted out of the congregation in 2013 "after some sort of falling out.'' But the church refused to discuss the matter.