Grandson says Fred Phelps changed mind about gays

Westboro Baptist Church defector Zach Phelps-Roper says his grandfather’s anti-gay attitudes softened prior to his death.

By Bob Allen

Fred Phelps, founder of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., may have been excommunicated for having a change of heart toward homosexuals, his grandson revealed in a statement posted on Facebook and an interview with the Huffington Post.

Zach Phelps-Roper, 23, who left the controversial sect in February, said he believes his grandfather rejected the homophobia that propelled his church to infamy prior to his death in March at age 84.

“I think that he got over that,” he told Huffington Post host Marc Lamont Hill in a telephone interview. “I don’t think he hated homosexuals by that point.”

Fred PhelpsIt was reported in March that Phelps was excommunicated from the church prior to his death but church leaders would not say why. Zach Phelps-Roper said on the day he was voted out of fellowship his grandfather was heard voicing support for Equality House, a project of the nonprofit organization Planting Peace located across the street.

Phelps-Roper said his grandfather referred to the house painted in rainbow colors to symbolize sympathy for the LGBT community with words to the effect of, “You are good people.” He said only a couple of church members were within earshot, but they made a big deal about what family members termed “rank blasphemy that he was coming out in support of the homosexuals.”

Fred Phelps, a disbarred lawyer who formed the independent Baptist church comprised mostly of members of his extended family in 1955, was called the most hated man in America for his church’s “outreach ministry” — anti-gay protests marked by the infamous “God Hates Fags” slogan held in more than 900 cities across the United States.

The protests began with a 1991 demonstration at a Topeka park known to be frequented by gays. The group first gained national attention by appearing at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student whose 1998 murder prompted hate-crime legislation in many states.

For years the church remained relatively obscure picketing events like religious conventions, including the Southern Baptist Convention, and performances of the The Laramie Project, a play based on Shepard’s life.

That changed in 2005 when church members started showing up at funerals of fallen American soldiers proclaiming that casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are the result of God’s wrath against America for tolerating homosexuality. A number of states responded with laws regulating protests near funerals.

More recently, the church was in the news largely because of defections. Megan Phelps-Roper, a Phelps granddaughter who handled the church’s social media, left Westboro at age 27 early in 2013, followed by her 19-year-old sister, Grace.

Zach Phelps-Roper walked away Feb. 20 from the hate-filled preaching and picketing he had participated in since he was 3, saying in the previous three months he had come to believe that empathy and unconditional love — not harsh judgmentalism — are keys to solving the world’s problems.

Phelps-Roper said he thinks his grandfather’s attitudes softened when his grandmother nearly passed away from pneumonia. He said the elder Phelps waited for news of her every day while she was in intensive care.

“I think this triggered a chain reaction whereby he developed great empathy for others,” Phelps-Roper said.

Phelps-Roper said he wasn’t present, but he was told his grandfather “seemed to have a change of heart” toward two grandchildren who had left the church more than a year earlier but came to visit him in hospice.

Phelps-Roper said he “absolutely” believes his grandfather had a change of heart and that “people do change, if they are inspired enough.”

Nate Phelps, a son estranged for years from his family since leaving Westboro Baptist Church the night he turned 18, commented on Facebook “it's the first I’m hearing” of his father’s supposed epiphany.

“I have heard some remarkable testimony from my niece about his kindness to her near the end,” said Nate, an LGBT and anti-child abuse advocate now living in Canada. “I also heard that he was still singing hymns and praying to his god at the end.”

“It’s hard to know what to believe,” Phelps said.