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Fred Phelps

Outside our borders, the state of Kansas does not enjoy an overwhelmingly positive reputation. Deserved or not, the Sunflower State has notoriety for tornadoes, the Wizard of Oz, KU basketball, politicians who can't differentiate between the Statehouse and their house of worship -- and the venomous hatred spewed publicly by the Westboro Baptist Church.

The church in Topeka might fade into the memories of a bad dream now that its founder and spiritual leader has died. Fred Phelps passed away Wednesday night at the age of 84.

In perversely ironic fashion, there will be no funeral. Although Phelps and his family/congregation would stage protests at most any public gathering, it was at funerals where he generated the most attention and controversy. Particularly those of military personnel.

Phelps hated gay people as much as God hated a society that tolerated them. That was what the preacher believed. An Associated Press article noted he "derisively insisted the Lord had nothing but anger and bile for the moral miscreants of his creation."

Such a perspective led him not only to target gay people, but also organizations or groups he believed tolerated the LGBT community, fellow clergy who weren't as mean-spirited as he, and fallen members of the armed services. Soldiers, after all, were representatives of a federal government that dared even to consider gay individuals worthy of personhood.

And Phelps recognized early on the uproar that could be created by picketing military funerals.

The Westboro clan would deliver its message with bullhorns and signs proclaiming "You're Going to Hell" or "God Hates Fags" or "Thank God for IEDs" with shocking neon colors. The group was not going to allow itself to be overlooked.

They weren't. Whether in San Francisco or Hays, America, the Westboro bunch was noticed. We'd dare say there were few instances, if any, when they found support or sympathy. More often, they generated even larger counter-protests, louder bullhorns and anger from generally peaceful individuals who couldn't believe the sanctity of a U.S. flag-draped funeral process would dare be violated.

Fred Phelps was hated and despised by most people who'd even just read about him. He was denied by some members of his immediate family.

"The Westboro Baptist Church is probably the vilest hate group in the United States of America," Heidi Beirich, research director for the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Associated Press in July 2011. "No one is spared, and they find people at their worst, most terrible moments of grief, and they throw this hate in their faces. It's so low."

"Fred was a loathsome creature," said Wayne Besen, executive director of the gay-rights group Truth Wins Out. "But I'll say one nice thing about him: He's the only honest person on the religious right I've ever met."

Many gay-rights supporters acknowledge Phelps and his church actually have helped the LGBT movement's drive for equality. Many who believed they had no stake in that fight would take one look at Phelps' message and reject it.

We only can hope that undesired reality will haunt Fred Phelps for eternity, wherever that might be for him. And, with the passage of time, this particular unwanted stereotype of our great state fades from memory.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net