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March 20, 2014

What Next for the Westboro Baptist Church?

fred phelpsThe virulently homophobic, anti-Semitic Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is entering a new stage now that founder and patriarch Fred Phelps, Sr., has died. An estranged son, Nate Phelps, who first described his father’s impending death on Facebook, also claimed that WBC members excommunicated the senior Phelps in August 2013.

WBC would not confirm whether Fred Phelps had been excommunicated, asserting that information on WBC’s membership was private. A March 16 press release on the group’s website stated that the group has no singular leader but is headed by an eight-member board of elders.

According to Nate Phelps, WBC has undergone a number of changes over the last year. He claimed that tensions rose within WBC when the all-male board of elders marginalized WBC spokesperson Shirley Phelps-Roper.  In response to the power struggle between Shirley and the board, Fred Phelps allegedly called for kinder treatment between WBC members. The board then supposedly excommunicated Fred.

The ongoing inter-family strife within the organization, if true, signals a new chapter for WBC.  Shirley Phelps-Roper, Fred’s daughter, has been the most public face of WBC and acts as a lawyer for the group, as well. Nate Phelps claimed that Shirley could never be the leader of WBC because of passages in the Bible that cite women’s subservience to men. Another issue that could affect Shirley’s status within the church is her two daughters’ very public defection from the church about a year ago.

A new leader of WBC may emerge in the coming months now that Fred Phelps has actually passed. Nate Phelps speculated that possibilities include one of Fred’s sons, Tim Phelps, or Steve Drain, a member of the church who is not part of the extended Phelps family.  In the last few months, Drain appears to have superseded Shirley Phelps-Roper as spokesperson for the church.

Fred Phelps’ death and Shirley Phelps Roper’s alleged marginalization may change the public face of WBC but presumably not its message. The church will likely continue its many protests at the funerals of soldiers and other individuals and promote hate towards anyone who disagrees with its viewpoint.

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