News that Fred Phelps, founder of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, is in hospice care and reportedly near death was met with a variety of reactions from ex-congregants and the general public alike -- and there's one important detail you might have missed: Phelps was reportedly excommunicated from the church last year.
If true, it raises questions about what could have caused Phelps' removal from his own church, as well as who now controls the virulent group, known for picketing U.S. soldiers' funerals and making offensive proclamations about gays.
Phelps, who founded Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., in 1955, has long led Westboro's activities and rallies, so it was surprising when his estranged son, Nathan Phelps, posted on his Facebook page over the weekend that his father was officially excommunicated from the church in August 2013.
Representatives for Westboro have so far refused to definitively answer whether Fred Phelps -- once a civil rights lawyer -- is no longer a member, though leaders did say he is "a person of advanced age" who is in hospice care.
In this March 19, 2006 file photo, Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. preaches at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. (AP/Charlie Riedel, File)
The church briefly addressed the excommunication claim in a "Frequently Asked Question" post on its blog, noting that "membership issues are private" and declining to offer a specific answer to the question.
According to a report in the Topeka Capital-Journal Sunday, Nate Phelps wasn't the only estranged son speaking out about the purported excommunication. Mark Phelps, another ex-member, said in an email to the Capital-Journal Sunday that his father was indeed officially excluded from the church.
"Just a quick note to assure you the information you wrote and published this morning is accurate," Phelps wrote. "I do not know anything more than you know, at this time, but what you wrote I know to be true, personally, just as Nathan (Nate Phelps) knows to be true also."
Fred Phelps was reportedly voted out by church members last summer and moved from a home above the church to a different location "where he was watched to ensure he wouldn’t harm himself." Phelps purportedly stopped eating and drinking and is now "near death."
Ex-Westboro members have said that there are two ways to exit the church -- either willingly or by being kicked out.
Lauren Drain, a former member of the church who wrote a book last year about her experience being booted from the insular house of worship, penned a Facebook post Sunday in which she described the impact of excommunication.
"If the rumors are true regarding Fred Phelps, & I have strong reason to believe that they are -- this news to me is incredibly devastating," Drain wrote. "When I was back in the church 8 years ago, I witnessed various members get ex-communicated & watched in horror & fear as families were ripped apart at the seams."
Drain said she remains cut off from her own family due to her "non-compliance to church policy" and subsequent removal from the church.
Despite her personal anguish, Drain said she is praying for Phelps and for the remaining members at Westboro Baptist Church, which still include some of her siblings. Rather than vengeance, she urged those hurt by the church to take pity on its members.
"I consider myself one of the many victims of loss & confusion from the WBC. My dear family, whom I love so much, cannot & will not even recognize me as family because of the extreme beliefs propagated even until this day," Drain wrote. "I hope & pray that change can & will be the result of so many years of heartache & confusion. I pray that Pastor Phelps has a change of heart even if it is his last days. I pray that the remaining family members see what generations of judgment & banishment can do."
In this April 18, 2006 file photo, Shirley Phelps-Roper, left, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, Kan., holds a protest sign outside funeral services for Sgt. Daniel Sesker in Ogden, Iowa. (AP/Charlie Neibergall, file)
These comments paint a stark contrast to some of the negative messages since news broke of Phelps' hospice residence, including social media comments like, "Fred Phelps deserves neither rest or peace" and "Fred Phelps is on his death bed? Glorious day!"
Regardless of whether the excommunication claims are true, the church did address another important question: with Phelps gone, who's currently leading Westboro?
"The church has no singular human leader -- our head is the Lord Jesus Christ," read the blog post. "The church currently has 8 male members who have been serving the church in the capacity of ‘elders’ for several years (this word is synonymous with ‘bishop,’ ‘pastor,’ and ‘overseer’) -- all of whom minister to the members of the church, preach, and are involved in doctrine and teaching."
According to Westboro, these individuals were chosen by church members to serve in a leadership capacity.
And as for anyone who might assume that Phelps' absence may lead to a theological change of heart, consider that the church concluded its question-and-answer blog post by reiterating that "God still hates f**s, God still hates f** enablers."