Fred Phelps, the founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, died on March 19, 2014.

Fred founded the “church” in 1955, and the organization became known for its vehemently anti-gay protests and demonstrations. According to Westboro, they have picketed more than 53,000 events, from Lady Gaga concerts to US soldiers’ funerals. At a typical protest, a dozen or so church members (often including small children) brandish signs that say “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” (info from CNN here)

In my opinion, Fred Phelps was a complete and total asshole…


(pictured: I bet Nike hates this picture… image via Google)

…however, in spite of my absolute core-level disagreement and appall at everything I’ve ever read about him, I felt an odd twinge when I heard the news of his passing.

I felt a little sorry for Fred. To spend your entire life so consumed with hate and preoccupied with what other people are doing – what a waste of time! Fred was clearly wrestling with something more enormous than I can even begin to comprehend. I hope he finds the peace in death he could never find in life.

Whatsmore, ironically, if the version of all that God stuff he believed is true, he’s probably burning somewhere in the eighth level of hell right now. Because guess what – though so many wildly different versions of Christianity exist, they all seem to agree on one thing: only God can judge. And that means that Fred stepped over the line. A lot.

Also ironically, in his divisiveness, Fred actually brought a lot of people together. Folks from myriad walks of life who may not have otherwise crossed paths or had anything in common could unite in their disapproval of his “message.” Awesome!

Fred was a father, a family member, and a community leader. And even though I think the community he led was downright nasty, it’s likely that there are some people out there who are really sad he’s gone. The passing of a loved one is never easy.

But the main reason why I think I experienced a little twinge when Fred died was because of what he did for me – Fred Phelps and his “church” tested my commitment to social justice and free speech.

Social justice has to do with peoples’ capacity to live fulfilling lives and be active contributors to their communities. It has to do with access to education, health care, workplace equality, and opportunity. It’s about being able to speak your mind and move freely in the world, but not at the expense of others.

As a society and as a world, we have a lot of social justice work to do. And part of that work was/is letting Fred do his thing in spite of how disgusting it was/is.

For as much as I truly deplore every aspect of the Westboro Baptist Church’s “message,” I am committed to social justice and free speech, thus (grumble, grumble) I support their right to say it. The moment they trespass, physically harm, or impede someone’s capacity to live freely in the world (note: not liking what someone has to say in a public forum or space does not count as impeding someone’s capacity to live freely in the world), they’re done. But until that point, as much as I don’t like it, they get to say it.

Because how the heck am I supposed to claim my right to speak if they don’t have theirs?

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