03/20/2014 at 12:00 PM EDT
The Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., who founded a Kansas church widely known for its protests at military funerals and anti-gay sentiments, has died, according to his son Tim Phelps, reports Kansas First News
. He was 84.
Phelps was being cared for in an unidentified Kansas facility, Westboro Baptist Church spokesman Steve Drain said on Sunday, adding as the only detail, "He's an old man, and old people get health problems."
Members of the Westboro church, based in Topeka, frequently protest at funerals of soldiers with signs containing messages such as "Thank God for dead soldiers," and "Thank God for 9/11," claiming the deaths are God's punishment for American immorality and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.
Westboro Baptist, a small group made mostly of Phelps's extended family, inspired a federal law and laws in numerous states limiting picketing at funerals. But in a major free-speech ruling in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the church and its members couldn't be sued for monetary damages for inflicting pain on grieving families under the First Amendment.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights nonprofit group, has called Westboro Baptist Church a hate group.
Nate Phelps, an estranged son of Fred Phelps, told the Associated Press in a phone interview Sunday night that members of Westboro voted Phelps out of the church last summer, apparently "after some kind of falling out."
Nate Phelps, who broke away from the church 37 years ago, said church members became concerned afterward that his father might harm himself and moved him out of the church, where he and his wife had lived for years. Fred Phelps was moved into a house, stopped eating and was then moved into hospice care, Nate Phelps said.
Drain declined comment Sunday on whether Fred Phelps had been voted out of the church. Drain said Westboro Baptist Church doesn't have a designated leader.
When news circulated that Phelps was gravely ill, Kansas's leading gay-rights group urged the gay community to respect the privacy of the "notoriously anti-LGBT" pastor.
Phelps and the members of his church have "harassed" the grieving families of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Kansans and others, Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, said in a prepared statement.
But Witt added: "This is our moment as a community to rise above the sorrow, anger, and strife he sowed, and to show the world we are caring and compassionate people who respect the privacy and dignity of all."
Nate Phelps said he has no doubt some people would want to protest his father's funeral but added, "I wish they wouldn't."