Fred Phelps

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Fred Phelps Sr.
BornFred Waldron Phelps Sr.
(1929-11-13) November 13, 1929 (age 83)
ResidenceUnited States of America
NationalityUnited States American
Years active1951-
Spouse(s)Margie Simms
ChildrenFred Phelps, Jr.
Margie Phelps
Shirley Phelps-Roper
Jonathon B. Phelps
Rebekah Phelps-Davis
Elizabeth Phelps
Timothy Phelps
Rachel Phelps Hockenbarger
Abigail Phelps
Estranged from family:
Mark Phelps
Katherine Phelps
Nathan Phelps
Dorotha Bird (nee Phelps)
Theological work
EraLate 20th and Early 21st Centuries
Tradition or movementHyper-Calvinism
Notable ideasAnti-Homosexual, Anti-America, Anti-Catholic
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Fred Phelps Sr.
BornFred Waldron Phelps Sr.
(1929-11-13) November 13, 1929 (age 83)
ResidenceUnited States of America
NationalityUnited States American
Years active1951-
Spouse(s)Margie Simms
ChildrenFred Phelps, Jr.
Margie Phelps
Shirley Phelps-Roper
Jonathon B. Phelps
Rebekah Phelps-Davis
Elizabeth Phelps
Timothy Phelps
Rachel Phelps Hockenbarger
Abigail Phelps
Estranged from family:
Mark Phelps
Katherine Phelps
Nathan Phelps
Dorotha Bird (nee Phelps)
Theological work
EraLate 20th and Early 21st Centuries
Tradition or movementHyper-Calvinism
Notable ideasAnti-Homosexual, Anti-America, Anti-Catholic

Fred Waldron Phelps, Sr. (born November 13, 1929) is an American pastor heading the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), an independent Baptist church based in Topeka, Kansas. Phelps is a disbarred lawyer, founder of the Phelps Chartered law firm, and a former civil rights activist.

Phelps's followers frequently picket various events, such as military funerals, gay pride gatherings, high-profile political gatherings, university commencement ceremonies, performances of The Laramie Project, mainstream Christian gatherings and concerts with which he had no affiliation, arguing it is their sacred duty to warn others of God's anger.

In response to Phelps' protests at military funerals, President George W. Bush signed the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act into law in May 2006,[1] and, in April 2007, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius signed into law a bill establishing a 150-foot no-picketing buffer zone around funerals.[2]

He is known for the slogans that he and his ministry use against people he deems sinful; his church is built around a core of anti-homosexual theology, with many of their activities stemming from the slogan "God hates fags", which is also the name of the group's main website. Gay rights supporters have denounced him as a producer of anti-gay propaganda and violence-inspiring hate speech.[3] The church is considered a hate group and monitored by the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center.[4][5]




Phelps was born in Meridian, Mississippi, the elder of two children to Catherine Idalette Johnston and Fred Wade Phelps. His father was a railway police man for the Columbus and Greenville Railway and his mother was a homemaker.[6]

On September 3, 1935, when Phelps was five years old, his mother died of esophageal cancer at the age of 28.[6] After the death of their mother, Phelps and his younger sister were raised by their great-aunt Irene Jordan in Meridian. Jordan later died in a car accident in 1950. On December 25, 1944, Phelps' father married Olive Briggs, and Phelps and his sister were raised by their father and stepmother in Meridian.[6]


In May 1946, at the age of 16, Phelps graduated from high school and was admitted to United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.[6] After attending a Methodist revival meeting, however, Phelps decided to become a minister and chose not to attend West Point.[6] In August 1947, Phelps enrolled as a student at Bob Jones University, but dropped out after only three semesters.[7] He then attended the Prairie Bible Institute for the remaining two semesters of his freshman year.[7] In 1951, he earned a two-year degree from John Muir College. While at John Muir, Phelps was profiled in Time magazine for preaching against "sins committed on campus by students and teachers ... promiscuous petting ... evil language ... profanity ... cheating ... teachers' filthy jokes in classrooms ... [and] pandering to the lusts of the flesh".[8] In October 1951, while attending the Arizona Bible Institute, Phelps met Margie M. Simms and married her in May 1952.

Civil rights cases

Phelps earned a law degree from Washburn University in 1964, and founded the Phelps Chartered law firm.[9] The first notable cases were related to civil rights. "I systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws of this town," he claims.[3] Phelps' daughter was quoted as saying, "We took on the Jim Crow establishment, and Kansas did not take that sitting down. They used to shoot our car windows out, screaming we were nigger lovers," and that the Phelps law firm made up one-third of the state's federal docket of civil rights cases.[10]

Phelps took cases on behalf of African-American clients alleging racial discrimination by school systems, and a predominantly black American Legion post which had been raided by police, alleging racially based police abuse.[11] Phelps' law firm obtained settlements for some clients.[12] Phelps also sued President Ronald Reagan over Reagan's appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, alleging this violated separation of church and state. The case was dismissed by the U.S. district court.[12][13] Phelps' law firm, staffed by himself and family members also represented non-white Kansans in discrimination actions against Kansas City Power and Light, Southwestern Bell, and the Topeka City Attorney, and represented two female professors alleging discrimination in Kansas universities.[10]

In the 1980s, Phelps received awards from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government and the Bonner Springs branch of the NAACP, for his work on behalf of black clients.[12]


A formal complaint was filed against Phelps on November 8, 1977, by the Kansas State Board of Law Examiners for his conduct during a lawsuit against a court reporter named Carolene Brady. Brady had failed to have a court transcript ready for Phelps on the day he asked for it; though it did not affect the outcome of the case for which Phelps had requested the transcript, Phelps still requested $22,000 in damages from her.[14][15] In the ensuing trial, Phelps called Brady to the stand, declared her a hostile witness, and then cross-examined her for nearly a week, during which he accused her of being a "slut", tried to introduce testimony from former boyfriends whom Phelps wanted to subpoena, and accused her of a variety of perverse sexual acts, ultimately reducing her to tears on the stand.[14][15] Phelps lost the case; according to the Kansas Supreme Court:

The trial became an exhibition of a personal vendetta by Phelps against Carolene Brady. His examination was replete with repetition, badgering, innuendo, belligerence, irrelevant and immaterial matter, evidencing only a desire to hurt and destroy the defendant. The jury verdict didn't stop the onslaught of Phelps. He was not satisfied with the hurt, pain, and damage he had visited on Carolene Brady.[14][15]

In an appeal, Phelps prepared affidavits swearing to the court that he had eight witnesses whose testimony would convince the court to rule in his favor. Brady, in turn, obtained sworn, signed affidavits from the eight people in question, all of whom said that Phelps had never contacted them and that they had no reason to testify against Brady. Phelps was found to have made "false statements in violation of DR 7-102(A)(5)".[14][15]

On July 20, 1979, Phelps was permanently disbarred from practicing law in the state of Kansas,[14][15] though he continued to practice in Federal courts.

In 1985, nine Federal judges filed a disciplinary complaint against Phelps and five of his children, alleging false accusations against the judges. In 1989, the complaint was settled; Phelps agreed to stop practicing law in Federal court permanently, and two of his children were suspended for periods of six months and one year.[16]

Activities and statements

All of Phelps' recent actions were in conjunction with the congregation of Westboro Baptist Church. In 2001, Phelps estimated that the WBC had held 40 pickets a week for the previous 10 years.[17]

Family life

Nathan Phelps, estranged son of Fred Phelps, claims he never had a relationship with his abusive father when he was growing up. He alleged that, in addition to hurting others in this world, his father used to physically abuse his wife and children by beating them with his fists and the handle of a mattock to the point of bleeding.[18]

Religious beliefs

Phelps describes himself as an Old School Baptist, and states that he holds to all of the Five Points of Calvinism.[19] Phelps particularly highlights John Calvin's doctrine of unconditional election, the belief that God has elected certain people for salvation before birth, and limited atonement, the belief that Christ only died for the elect, and condemns those who believe otherwise.[20] Despite Phelps' claims of being a Primitive Baptist, he was ordained by a Southern Baptist church and is rejected and generally condemned by Primitive Baptists.[21]

Phelps views Arminianism (particularly the views of the Methodist theologian William Munsey) as a "worse blasphemy and heresy than that heard in all filthy Saturday night fag bars in the aggregate in the world".[22] In addition to John Calvin, Phelps admires Martin Luther and Bob Jones, Sr., and has approvingly quoted a statement by Jones that "what this country needs is 50 Jonathan Edwardses turned loose in it."[23] Phelps particularly holds to equal ultimacy, believing that "God Almighty makes some willing and he leads others into sin", a view he says is Calvinist.[24] However, many theologians would identify him as a Hyper-Calvinst (Hyper meaning "beyond" or "above" not "extreme").[25]

Phelps is against common Baptist practices like Sunday school meetings, Bible colleges and seminaries, and multi-denominational crusades,[26] although he attended Bob Jones University and worked with Billy Graham in his Los Angeles Crusade before Graham changed his views on a literal Hell and salvation. Phelps considers Graham the greatest false prophet since Balaam, and also condemns large church leaders such as Robert Schuller and Jerry Falwell, in addition to all current Catholics.[27]

Political views


In the movie Hatemongers, members of the Westboro Baptist Church state their children were being "accosted" by homosexuals in Gage Park, about half-a-mile from the Phelps' home (and a mile northwest of the Westboro Church). Shirley Phelps-Roper says that in the late 1980s Fred Phelps witnessed a homosexual attempting to lure her then five-year-old son Joshua into some shrubbery. After several complaints to the local government about the large amount of homosexual sex occurring in the park, with no resulting action, the Phelpses put up signs warning of homosexual activity. This resulted in much negative attention for the family. When the Phelpses called on local churches to speak against the activity in Gage Park, the churches also lashed out against the Phelps family, leading to the family protesting homosexuality on a regular basis.[10]

In 2005, Phelps and his family, along with several other local congregations, held a signature drive to bring about a vote to repeal two city ordinances that added sexual orientation to a definition of hate crimes and banned the city itself from workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. Enough signatures were collected to bring the measure to a vote.[28] Topeka voters defeated the repeal measure on March 1, 2005, by a 53–47% margin. In the same election, Phelps' granddaughter Jael was an unsuccessful candidate for the Topeka City Council, seeking to replace Tiffany Muller, the first openly gay member of the Council.[29]

Democratic Party

Phelps has run in various Kansas Democratic Party primaries five times, but has never won. These included races for governor in 1990, 1994, and 1998, receiving about 15 percent of the vote in 1998.[30] In the 1992 Democratic Party primary for U.S. Senate, Phelps received 31 percent of the vote.[31] Phelps ran for mayor of Topeka in 1993[32][33] and 1997.[34]

Support for Al Gore

Phelps supported Al Gore in the 1988 Democratic Party presidential primary election.[34] In his 1984 Senate race, Gore opposed a "gay bill of rights" and stated that homosexuality was not something that "society should affirm". Phelps has stated that he supported Gore because of these earlier comments.[35] According to Phelps, members of the Westboro Baptist Church helped run Gore's 1988 campaign in Kansas. Phelps' son, Fred Phelps Jr., hosted a Gore fundraiser at his home in Topeka and was a Gore delegate to the 1988 Democratic National Convention.[3]

Gore spokesman Dag Vega declined to comment, saying "We are not dignifying those stories with a response."[36]

Opposition to Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Hillary Rodham Clinton

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Phelps criticized Hillary Rodham Clinton during a speech he gave endorsing Bill Clinton's presidential campaign at the University of Kansas on October 14, 1992. In 1996 Phelps and the Westboro church opposed Clinton's re-election because of the administration's support for gay rights. The entire Westboro congregation picketed a 1997 inaugural ball,[37] denouncing Vice President Al Gore as a "famous fag pimp". In 1998, Westboro picketed the funeral of Gore's father, screaming vulgarities at Gore and telling him, "your dad's in Hell".

Saddam Hussein

In 1997 (before the fall of Saddam Hussein during the 2003 Iraq War) Phelps wrote a letter to Saddam praising his regime for being, in his opinion, "the only Muslim state that allows the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to be freely and openly preached on the streets."[38] Furthermore, he stated that he would like to send a delegation to Baghdad to "preach the Gospel" for one week. Saddam granted permission, and a group of WBC congregants traveled to Iraq to protest against the U.S. The WBC members stood on the streets of Baghdad holding signs condemning both Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as anal sex.[34] When Hussein died in December 2006, Phelps stated in a web broadcast that Saddam was in Hell along with Gerald Ford.

Barack Obama

Phelps believes that President Barack Obama is the Antichrist and that he will form an Unholy Trinity with the Catholic Church and Satan.[citation needed]

Arrests and traveling restrictions

United States

In 1994, Phelps was convicted for disorderly conduct for verbal harassment, and received two suspended 30-day jail sentences.[16][32] "

Phelps' 1995 conviction for assault and battery carried a five-year prison sentence, with a mandatory 18 months to be served before he became eligible for parole. Phelps fought to be allowed to remain free until his appeals process went through. Days away from being arrested and sent to prison, a judge ruled that Phelps had been denied a speedy trial and that he was not required to serve any time.[16][32]

United Kingdom

On February 18, 2009, two days before the Westboro Baptist Church's first UK picket, the UK Home Office announced that Fred Phelps and Shirley Phelps-Roper would be refused entry and that "other church members could also be flagged and stopped if they tried to enter Britain".[39] In May 2009, he and his daughter Shirley were placed on the Home Office's "name and shame" list of people barred from entering the UK for "fostering hatred which might lead to inter-community violence".[40]

Lawsuit against Westboro Baptist Church

On March 10, 2006, WBC picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder, who died in combat in Iraq on March 3, 2006.[41] The Snyder family sued Fred Phelps for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.[42] On October 31, 2007, WBC, Fred Phelps and his two daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis, were found liable for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A federal jury awarded Snyder's father $2.9 million in compensatory damages, then later added a decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and an additional $2 million for causing emotional distress (a total of $10.9 million).[43] The organization said it wouldn't change its message because of the verdict.

The lawsuit named Albert Snyder, father of Matthew Snyder, as the plaintiff and Fred W. Phelps, Sr.; Westboro Baptist Church, Inc.; Rebekah Phelps-Davis; and Shirley Phelps-Roper as defendants, alleging that they were responsible for publishing defamatory information about the Snyder family on the Internet, including statements that Albert and his wife had "raised [Matthew] for the devil" and taught him "to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery".[citation needed] Other statements denounced them for raising their son Catholic. Snyder further complained the defendants had intruded upon and staged protests at his son's funeral. The claims of invasion of privacy and defamation arising from comments posted about Snyder on the Westboro website were dismissed on First Amendment grounds, but the case proceeded to trial on the remaining three counts.

Albert Snyder, the father of LCpl Matthew A. Snyder, testified:

They turned this funeral into a media circus and they wanted to hurt my family. They wanted their message heard and they didn't care who they stepped over. My son should have been buried with dignity, not with a bunch of clowns outside.[44]

In his instructions to the jury U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett stated that the First Amendment protection of free speech has limits, including vulgar, offensive and shocking statements, and that the jury must decide "whether the defendant's actions would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, whether they were extreme and outrageous and whether these actions were so offensive and shocking as to not be entitled to First Amendment protection".[citation needed] See also Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, a case where certain personal slurs and obscene utterances by an individual were found unworthy of First Amendment protection, due to the potential for violence resulting from their utterance.[citation needed]

WBC sought a mistrial based on alleged prejudicial statements made by the judge and violations of the gag order by the plaintiff's attorney. An appeal was also sought by the WBC. WBC has said that it is thankful for the verdict.

On February 4, 2008, Bennett upheld the ruling but reduced the punitive damages from $8 million to $2.1 million. The total judgment then stood at $5 million. Court liens were ordered on church buildings and Phelps' law office in an attempt to ensure that the damages were paid.[45]

An appeal by WBC was heard on September 24, 2009. The federal appeals court ruled in favor of Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church, stating that their picket near the funeral of LCpl Matthew A. Snyder is protected speech and did not violate the privacy of the service member's family, reversing the lower court's $5 million judgment. On March 30, 2010, the federal appeals court ordered Albert Snyder to pay the court costs for the Westboro Baptist Church, an amount totaling $16,510.[46] Political commentator Bill O'Reilly agreed on March 30 to cover the costs, pending appeal.[47]

A writ of certiorari was granted on an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, and the oral argument for the case took place on October 6, 2010. Margie Phelps, one of Fred Phelps' children, represented the Westboro Baptist Church.[48]

The Court ruled in favor of Phelps in an 8–1 decision, holding that their speech related to a public issue, and was disseminated on a public sidewalk.[citation needed]

People targeted by Fred Phelps

Since the early 1990s, Phelps has targeted several individuals and groups in the public eye for criticism by the Westboro Baptist Church.

Prominent examples include President Ronald Reagan, Princess Diana, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, National Football League star Reggie White, Sonny Bono, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, atheists, Muslims, murdered college student Matthew Shepard, the late children's television host Fred Rogers, the late Australian actor Heath Ledger, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, political commentator Bill O'Reilly, Jews,[38] Catholics, Australians,[49] Swedes, the Irish and US soldiers killed in Iraq. He has also targeted the Joseph Estabrook Elementary School in Lexington, Massachusetts, center of the David Parker controversy. In 2006, they planned a protest at the funeral for the murdered children of the West Nickel Mines School, but called it off, opting to spread their messages on a local radio station instead.[50] In 2007 he stated that he would target the late Jerry Falwell's funeral.[51]

Phelps' daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, has appeared on Fox News, defending the WBC and attacking homosexuality. She and her children have also appeared on the Howard Stern radio show attempting to promote their agenda and church. However, every time they appear, they are mocked and taunted, and made the subjects of ridicule.

Phelps' followers have repeatedly protested the University of Kansas School of Law's graduation ceremonies.

In August 2007, in the wake of the Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse, Phelps and his congregation stated that they will protest at the funerals of the victims. In a statement, the church said that Minneapolis is the "land of the Sodomite damned".[52]

Efforts to discourage funeral protests


On May 24, 2006, the United States House and Senate passed the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, which President George W. Bush signed five days later. The act bans protests within 300 feet of national cemeteries — which numbered 122 when the bill was signed—from an hour before a funeral to an hour after it. Violators face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.[53]

As of April 2006, at least 17 states have banned protests near funeral sites immediately before and after ceremonies, or are considering it. These are: Illinois,[54] Indiana,[55] Iowa,[56] Kansas, Kentucky,[57] Louisiana,[58] Maryland,[59] Michigan, Missouri (which passed the law), and Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina,[60] South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.[61] Florida increased the penalty for disturbing military funerals, amending a previous ban on the disruption of lawful assembly.[62] On January 11, 2011, Arizona passed an emergency measure which prohibits protests within 300 feet of any funeral services, in response to an announcement by the WBC that it planned to protest at 2011 Tucson shooting victim Christina Green's funeral.[63]

These bans have been contested. Bart McQueary, having protested with Phelps on at least three occasions,[64] filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of Kentucky's funeral protest ban. On September 26, 2006, a district court agreed and entered an injunction prohibiting the ban from being enforced.[64] In the opinion, the judge wrote:

Sections 5(1)(b) and (c) restrict substantially more speech than that which would interfere with a funeral or that which would be so obtrusive that funeral participants could not avoid it. Accordingly, the provisions are not narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest but are instead unconstitutionally overbroad.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in Missouri on behalf of Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church to overturn the ban on the picketing of soldier's funerals.[65] The ACLU of Ohio also filed a similar lawsuit.[66]

In the case of Snyder v. Phelps, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "distasteful and repugnant" protests surrounding funerals of service members were protected by the First Amendment. But attorneys for the service member’s family appealed the decision on the grounds that such speech should not be allowed to inflict emotional distress on private parties exercising their freedom of religion during a funeral service. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on October 6, 2010 and ruled 8-1 in favor of Phelps in an opinion released on March 2, 2011.[67] The court held that "any distress occasioned by Westboro's picketing turned on the content and viewpoint of the message conveyed, rather than any interference with the funeral itself" and thus could not be restricted.[68]

Other responses

WBC is listed as a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.[4][5]

To counter the Phelps' protests at funerals of soldiers, a group of motorcycle riders has formed the Patriot Guard Riders to provide a nonviolent, volunteer buffer between the protesters and mourners.[53]

On August 28, 2010, members of the Westboro Baptist Church were the apparent target of a pepper spray attack while protesting a block from the funeral of fallen US Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Bock in Omaha, Nebraska.[69]

Phelps in the media

The Phelps family was the subject of the TV program The Most Hated Family in America, presented on the BBC by Louis Theroux.[70] Four years after his original documentary, Theroux produced a follow-up program America's Most Hated Family in Crisis, which was prompted by news of family members leaving the church.[71] Phelps' son Nate has broken ranks with the family and in an interview with Peter W. Klein on the Canadian program The Standard, he characterized his father as abusive and warned the Phelps family could turn violent.[72]

Kevin Smith produced a horror film titled Red State featuring a religious fundamentalist villain based on Phelps.[73][74]

Phelps appeared in A Union in Wait, a 2001 Sundance Channel documentary film about same-sex marriage, directed by Ryan Butler after Phelps picketed Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University over a proposed same-sex union ceremony.

Electoral history

Democratic primary for Governor of Kansas, 1990

Democratic primary for United States Senate, Kansas 1992

Democratic primary for Governor of Kansas, 1994

Democratic primary for Governor of Kansas, 1998

See also


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  60. ^ South Carolina General Assembly (21 May 2006), 2005–2006 Bill 4965: Funeral Services,, retrieved 2012-12-22
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  62. ^ HB 7127 - Disturbance of Assemblies, 20 June 2006,, retrieved 12 December 2012
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  64. ^ a b American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky (7 June 2007), "McQueary v. Stumbo", Freedom of Speech & Assembly,, retrieved 12 December 2012
  65. ^ Burke, Garance (23 July 2006), "ACLU Sues for Anti-Gay Group That Pickets at Troops' Burials", The Washington Post,, retrieved 12 December 2012
  66. ^ American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio (8 may 2006), ACLU Demands Respect for Free Speech,, retrieved 12 December 2012
  67. ^ Supreme Court of the United States (2 March 2011), Snyder v. Phelps et al,, retrieved 12 December 2012
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  70. ^ Theroux, Louis (30 March 2007), "America's Most Hated Family", BBC Online,, retrieved 12 December 2012
  71. ^ Theorux, Louis (31 March 2011), "Westboro Baptist Church Revisited", BBC Online,, retrieved 12 December 2012
  72. ^ Cutbirth, Joe (11 April 2010), "Phelps' Son Says "God Hates Fags" Church Could Turn Violent", The Huffington Post,, retrieved 12 December 2012
  73. ^ Adler, Shawn (31 October 2008), "Kevin Smith Eschews Comedy In Favor Of Horror For 'Red State' -- But Will It Ever Get Made?", MTV,, retrieved 12 December 2012
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  75. ^ See Fred Phelps, 2 September 2012,, retrieved 12 December 2012 for all election statistics

External links

For external links related to Westboro Baptist Church and not Phelps specifically, see this section.
Biographical information