By Tom Ehrich

I never directly encountered Fred Phelps, who made a strange and hurtful career of bashing gays and picketing anything, even military funerals, that had the slightest gay-friendly element.

His reported death in Kansas does remind me why I never encountered him. His hate troops came to Durham, NC, in 2006 to protest a production of "The Laramie Project," a play about the murder of a gay man. That production was at my son's high school.

Parents were proud of our kids for undertaking such an emotional drama. We had no intention of letting Phelps or his followers sully the moment. So we lined the sidewalk into school and turned our backs on the sign-bearing haters.

It turns out that this was the recommended response -- rather than a direct confrontation that would lead to lawsuits -- and it was practiced nationwide.

The question now, of course, is whether anyone will picket Phelps' funeral after he did so much to hurt other people. The consensus on Facebook is No, let the tormented man die in peace and in the isolation that hatred brings.

The larger question is whether God will turn his back on Phelps. I think not. The God I worship loves all that he has made, even fools and haters, and God will show Phelps a mercy that the man himself was unable to show others. Thus are God's ways different from our ways.

And a final question is whether Phelps' passing will take the steam out of Westboro Baptist Church's relentless campaign against homosexuals. Sadly, no. Haters are in full roar across the land.

My read is that the balance has tipped, and a large majority of Americans are comfortable living, studying, working and marrying alongside people whose sexuality differs from their own. Sexuality is a non-issue to most people. Anti-gay warriors seem to sense that this is their last chance to enshrine bigotry in the laws and norms of society.

Fred Phelps would salute the effort, I assume. At least in life he would salute it. In death, he is likely to discover that God has different values from his.