Can anti-gay Westboro Church survive Fred Phelps' death?

Death of Fred Phelps may bring down the Westboro Baptist Church and its 'God hates fags' placards

(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

FRED PHELPS, the founder of the fiercely anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, has died aged 84.

Phelps founded his church in 1955. Its small congregation, largely comprised of Phelps' family members, gained notoriety for picketing the funerals of US servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Westboro Baptist Church said that the soldiers' deaths were God's way of punishing the US for enabling same-sex marriages.

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The group was notorious for brandishing placards with slogans such as "God hates fags" and "Thank God for dead soldiers" outside funerals.

The Southern Poverty Law Centre, an organisation that monitors hate groups in the US, describes Westboro as "arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America".

Where next for Westboro?Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told USA Today that the Westboro Baptist Church today appears to have fewer than "a few dozen" members.

The group is believed to have descended into infighting prior to Phelps's death. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Phelps's estranged son Nathan said that the church's founder had in fact been excommunicated from the group on his deathbed for having become too moderate.

In his view, the group is unlikely to survive its founder's death. He said: "More members have left – three in recent weeks. There will be a tipping point where they cannot lose any more of their children."

"It won't be my father's death that ends (the church). Ultimately it will fail with the death of his idea", Nathan Phelps said.

Other extreme-right groups, such as the National Alliance and Aryan Nations, have collapsed after the death of their founders, USA Today notes.

"When you build a group so much around the personality and politics of a single leader, it's sometimes difficult to keep that group alive when that leader dies," Potok said. "It's possible the church could fall apart in the next year or two".

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