(Reuters) - Fred Phelps, the pastor who led a small Kansas church's vitriolic "God Hates Fags" anti-gay campaign at public events across the United States, including military funerals, has died, the church said Thursday.
Phelps, whose Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, won a 2011 freedom-of-speech U.S. Supreme Court decision related to their anti-gay picketing, died late Wednesday in a Kansas hospice. He was 84.
"People die - that is the way of all flesh," a blog post on the church's website said.
Phelps founded the church in the 1950s.
In his later years, Phelps, known as "Gramps" to his family, turned over much of the church's day-to-day operations to his offspring.
In March, his son Nathan, who ran away from home as soon as he turned 18 and later became a gay rights advocate, said in a Facebook posting he had learned Phelps was near death in a hospice and that he had been excommunicated in 2013. The church would not confirm the excommunication report, saying membership issues were "private."
Phelps' church was widely denounced as a hate group and was not part of any mainstream Baptist organization. Its membership has been estimated at about 100, many of whom were related to Phelps.
By Phelps' reasoning, cancer, the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, school shootings and the deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other tragedies and disasters involving Americans, were God's retribution for a lax attitude toward what he called "the modern militant homosexual movement."
"God Hates Fags" was the overriding slogan for Phelps and his followers, as well as the name of their primary website. They carried that message to protests, brandishing signs declaring "Thank God For AIDS," "America Is Doomed," "Thank God For Dead Soldiers" and "God Blew Up The Troops."
"Look, you can't preach the Bible without preaching the hatred of God," Phelps said in a 2010 Huffington Post interview.
The news of his death was met with an outpouring of comments on social media, including many who said Phelps' teachings inadvertently served to promote tolerance of the gay and lesbian community.
"I'd like to thank Fred Phelps today, for accidentally inspiring me and countless others like me to fight for tolerance and against hate," Russell Hainline, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, tweeted.
(Additional reporting by Victoria Cavaliere in New York; Editing by Gunna Dickson)