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Fred Phelps;How he helped the gay-rights movement

Fred Phelps Sr.
Fred Phelps Sr.

Fred Phelps Sr. famous for leading demonstrations during military funerals, died Wednesday. Phelps, who was minister of Westboro Baptist church, was well known for his crusades against gays and lesbians.

He often used military funerals to hold these protest. Marking grieving families of troops who died overseas, harassing people entering the churches and carrying picket signs with anti-gay slurs and offensive symbols and language. These acts made him hated by many and garnered sympathy for the gay and lesbian community.

"The world lost someone who did a whole lot more for the LGBT community than we realize or understand," said Cathy Renna, a longtime consultant to LGBT groups. "He has brought along allies who are horrified by the hate. So his legacy will be exactly the opposite of what he dreamed."

James Esseks, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed that Phelps' tactics did more good than harm in the gay-rights mission.

"He would show up with his extreme anti-gay views, and a bunch of people in the middle would think, 'If that's what it means to be anti-gay, I want no part of it,'" Esseks said.

The federal government was outraged by Phelps' public displays and created laws limiting the protests to aid in protecting grieving families.

Many religious leaders criticized Phelps and his followers. At the 2003 annual Southern Baptist Convention, leaders spent a session drawing a distinction between their opposition to same-sex unions and Phelps' protests.

Phelps called his church Baptist but had no ties with the Southern Baptist Convention or any other mainstream Baptist group.

"Westboro Baptist is to Baptist Christianity what the "Book of Mormon" Broadway play was to the Latter-Day Saints," said the Rev. Russell Moore, who leads the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission. "They were kind of a performance art of vitriolic hatred rather than any kind of religious organization."

Fred Phelps earned a law degree from Washburn University in 1964 but was permanently disbarred in 1979 from practicing law in the state of Kansas.

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