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Fred Phelps, founder of 'rabid' Westboro Baptist Church, said near death

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Charlie Riedel/AP/File

(Read caption) Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. preaches at his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, in this 2006 file photo.

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Fred Phelps Sr., the founder of the Kansas church held in disgust worldwide for its antigay protests of prominent funerals, is in hospice care and "on the edge of death," according to one of his estranged sons.

Nate Phelps posted the information on Facebook Saturday night, adding the revelation that his father had been excommunicated from the church in 2013. A church spokesman told the Topeka Capitol-Journal that Phelps was indeed in the hospice but that Nate Phelps "is not well informed." The spokesman also refused to comment on the allegation that the elder Mr. Phelps has been excommunicated.

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Another son, Mark Phelps, told the Capitol-Journal that its information on his father's health "is accurate."

Fred Phelps established the Westboro Baptist Church in 1955, and in recent years it has become famous for its position that those killed in America's wars are being punished for the country's lenience toward homosexuals. Members protested military funerals with signs that read, among other things, "God Hates Fags."

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the United States, says on its website that Westboro "is arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America. The group is basically a family-based cult of personality built around its patriarch, Fred Phelps."

The group began to gain widespread notoriety last decade, particularly through a series of court decisions that ended with the US Supreme Court in March 2011 declaring that the church's right to protest funerals was free speech protected by the Constitution. It later protested the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards, the former wife of presidential candidate John Edwards, and a memorial for Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple.

The church is made up mostly of Phelps's own family. But spokesman Steve Drain told the Capitol-Journal that "for a very long time, we haven't been organized in the way you think," referring to the idea of a defined leader.

Nate Phelps told the Capitol-Journal in an e-mail that when his father was excommunicated last August, he was watched for fear of him hurting himself, then he "basically stopped eating and drinking."