Anti-Westboro Baptist Church petition smashes White House records

The Huffington Post claims that this petitions.whitehouse.gov petition, calling for the classification of the Westboro Baptist Church as a "hate group," is now the most popular White House petition of all time. To be honest, I'm less interested in this petition than I am in a pair (1, 2) of similar petitions calling for the revocation of tax-exempt status for the Westboro kooks. Being classed as a hate group will make life a little less convenient for them, but losing tax-exempt status would be a serious blow in the nads and the wallet for 'em. (via Reddit)
Discuss

71 Responses to “Anti-Westboro Baptist Church petition smashes White House records”

  1. CSMcDonald says:

    Volokh has some thoughts on whether the government can actually do this based on what those crazy folks are doing (TL;DR No, probably not):

    http://www.volokh.com/2012/12/17/can-the-westboro-baptist-church-the-funeral-picketers-be-stripped-of-their-tax-exempt-status-because-of-their-views/

  2. Boundegar says:

    I’m not sure losing exempt status would be the crushing blow people think.  As I understand it, unlike most churches, WBC does not depend on the donations of the faithful.  Instead, they earn most of their money by trolling people until they snap, and then suing them.  Punitive damages are generally taxable, but compensatory damages are not, so the group may end up not paying a whole lot of taxes or losing a lot of donations.

    It would be a blow to delegitimate them, but I don’t think very many people still think of them as legitimate.  Even right-wing nutjobs think they’re right-wing nutjobs.

    • Warren Grant says:

       Yes their scam is to sue people for damages. They are in the majority lawyers I believe. At any rate their claim to be a “church” is pretty specious I think, they are simply abusing the right to free speech in order to use the courts to make money. There are few more despicable people in the USA in my opinion.

      • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

        They are undoubtedly assholes; but last I checked their kill count was still at zero and if they have a penchant for raping children or something they’ve managed to keep it under impressively tight wraps seeing as more or less everybody hates them…

        I’d say that the list of more despicable people is a long one, although most of its members are depressingly banal.

      • C W says:

        It’s not specious. They’re certainly more sincere about their beliefs than any megachurch out there.

  3. Work_Watch_Buy_Repeat says:

    Wait, what?  In the USA, there is an official, Government-maintained list of “hate groups” that the President can unilaterally add to?  Really?

    If true, this strikes me as being deep, deep into zero-due-process “enemies list” territory.  

    But hey, there’s already a precedent with the “no-fly” list of people too dangerous to fly, but not dangerous enough to get a day in court.  And the “terrorist organizations” list, which enumerates the groups to which you cannot weblink on pain of felony prison time.  So it’s not like the USA hasn’t already crossed deep into that territory.

    Allowing Governments to have extrajudicial “enemies lists” that de facto criminalizes individuals and organizations, well that’s far, far worse than any problem posed by peaceful protesters.

    • doggo says:

      Ooh. Put them on the “no-fly” list!

    • Boundegar says:

      I don’t think there is a “hate groups” list, which is kind of a flaw in the petition, isn’t it?  The SPLC has a list, but of course they’re a private group.  If there was such a list, it might be the government is forbidden to use them as contractors, or something similarly useless.

      • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

        I know that the DoD makes some attempt to keep certain flavors of undesirables out of the armed forces, including assorted *-supremacists; but also including generic gang members and such. My understanding is that that’s more of a “we don’t really want to provide training and guns to people who are likely to use them off hours, or have to deal with people who subscribe to some flavor of ethnic loathing that will make them Not Team Players” thing, rather than a specific anti ‘hate group’ stance.

        The FBI and BATF also seem to have an interest in ethnic supremacist organizations but, again, that seems to have more to do with their frequent enthusiasm for stockpiling lots and lots of guns and occasionally trying to incite the racial holy war, rather than any specific pro-niceness policies. Since WBC has (to the best of my knowledge) always been more enthusiastic about telling the sinners about god’s imminent judgement, rather than personally assisting in it, they probably aren’t high on the list.

        There is certainly a very significant overlap between what people would call ‘hate groups’ and groups that probably have an FBI mole right now; but that seems to be more a function of the fact that such groups have a bit of a history of making definitely-illegal-and-sometimes-lethal trouble.

    • Thorzdad says:

       I think the FBI keeps track of groups one would consider “hate groups”. Whether it’s an official designation, though, I can’t say.

      • The list isn’t public so it’s entirely possible WBC is already on it. Regardless, it carries no legal weight. It’s just a list of groups the FBI is keeping an eye on.

        The canonical “hate group list” is maintained by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the WBC is already on it, and it definitely has no force of law.

    • matthew731 says:

      This has been one of my biggest questions about this effort.  I don’t think that there is such a list maintained by the government.  The Southern Poverty Law Center ain’t a government entity.

    • It’s ok, because there is no such list. Not that has anything to do with the Whitehouse, anyway. And the President doesn’t get to take away groups’ tax exempt status because he doesn’t like them either. The petition is bogus.

    • C W says:

      “In the USA, there is an official, Government-maintained list of “hate groups” that the President can unilaterally add to?  Really?”

      No, not really.

  4. labelling them a hate group is (I think) defensible.  But their hate speech is based on their (twisted) religious beliefs.  There is no logically defensible reason for taking away their tax-free status if you’re going to allow other churches to keep theirs.  FWIW – I think taking away the tax-free status of all religious groups (and perhaps getting rid of non-profits all together) is worth discussing.

    • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

      Arguably, WBC is probably on better ground for tax exemption than a lot of more respectable and mainstream religious tax-exempt operations.

      They certainly do know how to make noise, and find the tackiest possible places to do so; but their apocalyptic loathing is sufficiently dramatic that they seem to have less interest in trying to influence the corrupt and hellbound world than in simply condemning it (plus, in an almost admirable twist, they are sufficiently consistent in their hatred that they alienate essentially everyone, even people who they agree with on many political issues).

      By contrast, your ‘moderates’, any rhetoric to the contrary, are usually pragmatic enough to recognize that the world isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so they are much more likely to actually make a grab for the levers of power, even strike compromises with people who disagree with them on major points (Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons, for instance, are wildly different theologically and on things like the death penalty; but have a fairly effective coalition on the ‘gays are icky’ platform), to achieve direct political goals, up to and including direct lobbying (in cash and from the pulpit) on specific ballot questions and candidates. WBC, by contrast, are crazy abrasive; but seem mostly too fanatical to actually get their hands dirty with direct political action.

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        Tax exemption is supposed to be on the basis of providing some kind of public service, which in the case of churches, can be publicly-held religious services. “Philosophical” “contributions” are not a basis for exemption.

        • jimmoffet says:

          Try looking up what kind of demonstration of public service it takes these days to keep a lease on publicly-owned electromagnetic spectrum. 

          It’s not any better for demonstrating public service to the IRS. I don’t think it’s simply a matter of people not being held accountable. I suspect the process for making a determination resides on a dusty index-card, the whereabouts of which passed from knowledge with the death of a withered old bureaucrat sometime before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

        • C W says:

          They do hold regular services, though.

    • Anel Viz says:

       If they were reclassified as a cult they would lose their status as a religious organization.

      • C W says:

        Just as ungrounded in reality as people who think there’s a federal hate group list.

        (There is not any such thing as “cult” classification either.)

  5. class_enemy says:

    On the overall scale of societal damage, if Scientology gets to keep their tax exemption I see no reason why the WBC should not.

    • Gilbert Wham says:

       I’d be all for removing it from every last church everywhere.

    • Warren Grant says:

       It would be much better if both Pseudo-Religion-Cum-Financial-Scams lost that status. In order to qualify for any religious tax breaks you ought to have to show that you are contributing to the community at large, not trying to scam money out of them by various means.

      • nowimnothing says:

        How about religions keep their tax exemptions for their soup kitchens but multimillion-dollar mega churches are right out.

  6. ChickieD says:

    I know that people would like to stop jerks like this through some law or another, but people like this just end up finding workarounds to whatever law is erected to stop them. 

    I believe other forms of confrontation would be more effective. People must stand up against them and confront them in legal, lawful ways to end their reign of terror. Certainly there are gay organizations that are capable of rallying huge numbers of people to come and encircle a grieving military family in a big, protective circle of love. Now that DOMA is repealed, how wonderful it would be for the families of openly gay military members to take on this hate group by turning out people to keep funerals free of Westboro Baptist’s mean-spirited displays.

  7. Lobster says:

    On the one hand, I think it’s important that we all remember that our freedom of speech is not to protect speech that is loved but rather speech that is hated, and I think WBC does a public service in reminding us of that.

    On the other hand, fuck those guys.  Fuck them with just… so much dick.

    • Boundegar says:

      But the First Amendment does not protect trolling.  This was settled long ago with the issue of “shouting fire in a crowded theater.”  The term “trolling” is new, but the practice is not, and there is ample case law on this.

      • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

        Is doing something specifically chosen as an example of a situation where mere speech could cause immediate injury and/or death really “trolling”? Really?

        Yes, there are definitely various flavors of speech activity that are deemed constitutionally unprotected because they are seen as causing direct damage(extortion, trademark violation, hiring a hitman, etc.) but general trolling doesn’t consistently fall into that category(though things that do can be forms of trolling).

      • Lobster says:

        Contrary to what some websites would have you believe, when someone says something you don’t like they are not always “trolling.”  I believe the WBC sincerely believes the tripe they dispense, and if you actually listen to them they’ll tell you that THEY are going to hell, too.  Everyone is.  They just think you ought to know about it.

        Similarly, it’s perfectly legal to shout “fire” in a crowded theater if there is actually a fire.

      • Wikipedian says:

        Please read about shouting fire before invoking it again.

        The ruling used that as an analogy to censor anti-war protestors.

        And as shown by the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_Hall_disaster it has been used to quell labour dissent.

        So before you go bandying about the literal meaning of shouting fire, please read about what was actually meant:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shouting_fire_in_a_crowded_theater

        • Boundegar says:

          Thanks, that was very interesting.  My point was that speech which is /only/ intended to produce public chaos might not be protected.  I could be wrong, IANAL.

          • ldobe says:

            What about the stalking angle?

            If you’re being stalked, receiving threatening or intimidating communications, and the stalking party refuses to leave you alone, you can get a restraining order against them.

            What if the communities that are repeatedly demonstrated against try to get restraining orders for all the participating WBC members?

            Is that possibly workable? E.G. WBC members X, Y and Z keep protesting funerals I attend, I get a restraining order for them, they must be at least 100 yards from me at all times, therefore I can stand at the gate of the cemetery and they have to protest way out in the boonies, at least far enough away that nobody would even have to see them when going to the funeral.

          • C W says:

            If you’re in no physical danger and no threats are made, you’re not going to get a restraining order simply because your feelings were hurt.

          • Antinous / Moderator says:

            That’s not even vaguely true. Harassment doesn’t have to carry a threat of physical injury, although in California, threat of injury gets you out of having to pay the filing fee.

  8. all this attention probably makes them feel like martyrs and justifies their actions in their minds even more.

    I kind of want them to lose tax exempt status and then fall quietly into obscurity.

  9. Sarge Misfit says:

    There are two tings that can be done and don’t need any government approval. I don’t know the proper terms within the church organization that WBC is part of, but have their version of Pope censure the parish and defrock the priest.

  10. brandonmwest says:

    I don’t think undermining the 1st amendment just because there’s a group of assholes that most of us disagree with is a good thing.

    • wysinwyg says:

      1st amendment guarantees freedom of the press.  Now think carefully: is the New York Times tax exempt?

      No?  Then maybe tax-exempt status has fuck-all to do with the first amendment.

      • brandonmwest says:

        Yeah I’m referring to the petition mentioned in the headline, not tax exempt status.

        • wysinwyg says:

          Oh!  Very sorry about the intemperate response in that case.

          Dunno if I agree that hate speech laws appreciably weaken the 1st amendment but it’s a defensible position at any rate.

          • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

            Exactly how could a ‘hate speech law’ do anything but weaken the 1st amendment? If it isn’t written so as to abridge freedom of speech in certain areas, it isn’t much of a hate speech law, and if it is written to abridge freedom of speech in certain areas, it’s starting to tread on the 1st amendment’s toes…

  11. Absolutely revoke their tax exempt status. Tax exemption is for religious organizations, with the assumption that they are serving the greater good of the community. No one and I mean NO ONE can argue that Westboro Baptist Church is doing anything positive.

  12. stasike says:

    Do I have to be an USA citizen to be able to sign petition? Especially the one about the tax exemption.
    I know that they do not check physical address or anything, but I do not want to cheat.

  13. agonist says:

    Whether this accomplishes anything or not, it’s a great idea.

  14. humanresource says:

    Can someone please explain why the whole raft of laws and regulations used against normal protesters don’t get used against the WBC? For starters, there’s conduct likely to start a riot, disturbing the police, failing to obtain a permit before protesting etc. American police regularly beat and teargas people for much more innocuous acts of protest, especially if the protest is outside a political convention. There’s a whole apparatus of brutality and bureaucratic dickery that just doesn’t get used here, which leaves it to individual members of the public to be provoked into paying out damages to those shitstains at the WBC.

    • nowimnothing says:

      They are very careful to follow laws and regulations. Many of the places they go probably do not have many or very specific laws against public assembly before they get there.

    • C W says:

      “please explain why the whole raft of laws and regulations used against normal protesters don’t get used against the WBC”

      Because they are not challenging Capitalist entities.

  15. Velocirapt42 says:

    Is there a team of top-notch defense lawyers who offer their services pro bono to people who are sued by the Westboro Baptist Church? This seems like the best way to deflate them. I mean, I’m sure they have great lawyers, but I’m also sure there are better ones. If they got less cash coming in from lawsuits, they might have fewer resources allowing them to spread their message of terribleness.

  16. It’s remarkable how many petitions on the Whitehouse site ask for things that the Whitehouse cannot possibly provide.

    There is no Whitehouse “hate group” list. I guess Obama could issue a proclamation on nice letterhead that calls them a hate group… but it would carry no force of law. And (thankfully) the Whitehouse also does not have the ability to tax groups differently based on what they believe.

    • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

      Unfortunately, it isn’t exactly news that the American electorate has a very fuzzy understanding of what The President actually has the power to do.

      Worse, The President(s) have tended toward a rather  vigorous  flavor of the same fuzzy understanding…

  17. awjt says:

    Legitimate non-hate protest groups should learn a thing or two from the Westboro Baptist tactical playbook…

  18. relawson says:

    nail jello to the ceiling. 

    I’m writing that one down. :)

    you can have “trying to push a mattress through a moonroof” in trade

  19. ChickieD says:

    They are extremely effective at getting publicity.They remind me of PETA in their skill at manipulating the press into covering them. They are willing to fully embrace “No publicity is bad publicity,” in a way that makes others shutter.

  20. wysinwyg says:

     “Don’t get mad.”  I think that’s about it.  I wouldn’t recommend anything else out of the WBC tactical playbook.  Am I missing something?

  21. C W says:

    Legitimate religions don’t do well when they actively protest against entrenched systems either. WBC isn’t challenging anything of significance.

  22. nowimnothing says:

    Send several of your members through law school. Follow the exact letter of the law instead of the intent. 
    Not too dissimilar from the bath salts phenomenon, where they keep tweaking the ingredient list to avoid new laws.

  23. C W says:

    “Follow the exact letter of the law”

    And when the Supremes determine that your free speech is not free through “designated protest zones”, what then?

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