US anti-gay pastor Fred Phelps Sr. dies

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 21 2014 02:31 AM | Updated as of Mar 21 2014 10:31 AM

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CHICAGO - A homophobic pastor whose Kansas church members held hate-filled protests at military funerals with signs declaring "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God Hates Fags" died Thursday, his son told Kansas First News.

Reverend Fred Phelps Sr., who founded the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, was 84.

It is "arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center which tracks hate groups.

The church consists largely of the families of nine of Phelps' 13 children -- the others were estranged -- and a small number of other families and residents of the largely rural Midwestern US state of Kansas.

It funds its travels in part by suing those who try to block the protests for violating their right to free speech. Several of Phelps's children are lawyers.

The church won a major legal victory in 2011 when the Supreme Court ruled it couldn't be sued for inflicting pain on grieving families.

It first gained national notoriety by protesting at the funeral of gay student Matthew Shepard, whose brutal 1998 murder in Laramie, Wyoming sparked a nationwide debate about homophobia.

Church members began protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005.