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Westboro Baptist Church is an American church founded by Pastor Fred Phelps known for promoting anti-gay and anti-Semitic views. The church often organizes protests in which members hold signs reading “God Hates Fags” and praising various tragedies and disasters.
The group has been known to attend daily picketing in Topeka and travel nationally to protest the funerals of select individuals, including several gay victims of hate crime or AIDS-related deaths, war veterans who were killed during service and even victims of natural disasters and tragic massacres. As of March 2009, the church claims to have participated in over 41,000 protests in over 650 cities since 1991. On the web, the church’s messages are mainly spread through the provocatively titled website GodHatesFags.com, registered on January 22nd, 1997.
The church has launched several sister sites as well, including GodHatesAmerica.com (registered May 20th, 1999), GodHatesTheWorld.com (registered January 18th, 2005), AmericaIsDoomed.com (registered July 31st, 2005, now defunct), PriestsRapeBoys.com (registered July 31st, 2005), BeastObama.com (registered December 21st, 2008) SignMovies.com (registered April 5th, 2009), JewsKilledJesus.com (registered April 23rd, 2009), GodHatesIslam.com (registered September 22nd, 2010) and GodHatesTheMedia.com (registered November 9th, 2010). As of December 27th, 2012, the @GodHatesFagsWBC Twitter account has accumulated nearly 4000 followers.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church have been involved in anti-gay movements since 1991 when Fred Phelps launched “The Great Gage Park Decency Drive,” picketing a park in Topeka, Kansas where he believed homosexuals were meeting to have sex. The church gained national attention after protesting the funeral of hate crime victim Matthew Shepard in October 1998.
March 2006: Snyder vs. Phelps
Westboro members have been protesting military funerals since as early as 2005, when protests were held at public funerals for slain soldiers in Michigan, Alabama, Minnesota, Virginia, Colorado and Idaho, claiming these deaths are caused by America’s tolerance of homosexuality. On March 10th, 2006, members of the church picketed the funeral of U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder after he was killed in a car accident while serving overseas. In addition to the protest, the church condemned his parents for raising their son as a Catholic, claiming that they “raised him for the devil.” His father, Albert Snyder, sued Fred Phelps, two of his daughters and the church itself for defamation, intrusion upon seclusion, publicity given to private life, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy. On October 31st, 2007, the jury awarded Snyder a combination of $10.9 million dollars in various damages, which was overturned in an appeal by the church on September 24th, 2009. Since the church’s signs were considered hyperbolic and figurative expression rather than actual facts, which is covered under the First Amendment right to free speech, in October 2010, the courts ordered Snyder to pay the legal fees for the Church, amounting in $16,510.
The final decision in the case was made in March 2011 when the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the hateful speech of the Westboro Baptist Church was protected under the First Amendment. However, in August 2012, The Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act was signed into law, providing a slew of new benefits to veterans, including a provision on funeral protests. Under this law, protests may not take place two hours before or after a funeral service and they must be held at least 300 feet away. Violating this would lead to up to $50,000 in statutory damages.
December 2008: Phelps-A-Thon
Following a Westboro threat to protest a December 2008 Boston production of The Laramie Project, a play about the reaction to Matthew Shepard’s murder, activist Chris Mason launched a telethon-style protest where people can pledge online to donate money for every minute members of the Westboro Baptist Church actually protest. On December 12th, both groups gathered outside of the theatre (shown below) while people were able to donate online. By the time the play began, the Phelps-A-Thon raised more than $4600, with nearly $800 of that coming from people at the theater. Following the success of the counter protest, high schools in Missouri, Savannah, GA and Boulder, CO held their own Phelps-A-Thons to subvert Westboro protests in their areas.
February 2011: Feud with Anonymous
On February 16th, 2011, an open letter to the members of Westboro Baptist Church was posted to AnonNews asking them to cease their protesting and close their websites. This came on the heels of the church’s announcement that they would be picketing the funerals of the six people killed in Arizona during a shooting that also critically injured Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Two days later, a second open letter was posted to AnonNews claiming that Westboro congregants had written the first letter themselves as a trap for WBC to steal IP addresses. Despite this, Westboro responded on the 19th telling Anonymous to bring it. On the 24th, a masked hacker appeared on the David Pakman Show with Shirley Phelps (shown below) in which he continued to claim WBC drafted the first letter to themselves while hacking the website during the segment.
December 2012: Connecticut School Massacre
Following the Connecticut School Massacre on December 14th, 2012, Westboro Baptist Church leader Margie Phelps tweeted at United States President Barack Obama that gay marriage was to blame for the shooting.
President Beast @barackobama! Stop the phony tears!You brought this mayhem! STOP MARRYING FAGS! God is not joking! You’ve brought His wrath.
— MargiePhelps (@MargieJPhelps) December 14, 2012
Also on that same day, church representative Shirley Phelps-Roper announced via Twitter that the church planned to picket the Sandy Hook Elementary School to praise God for the shooting. Two days later, Phelps-Roper’s Twitter was hacked by someone claiming to be Twitter user @CosmoTheGod.
— Cosmo (@DearShirley) December 17, 2012
The same day, a Pastebin was created containing the personally identifiable information of several church members. On December 17th, Gawker published an article reporting that Anonymous had launched #OpWestboro to attack the Westboro Baptist Church and its members. The article noted that several church members’ credit card numbers had been leaked and that Cosmo the God had violated his parole in order to take over Phelps-Roper’s Twitter account. On December 21st at 6 PM EST Anonymous members issued a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack on godhatesfags.com followed by pizza orders, prank phone calls and fax spam causing the group to disconnect many of their phone lines. However, the group announced this was not the end of #OpWestboro, directing people to a Twitter account for further news.
Anti-WBC White House Petition
On December 14th, largely in response to the church’s announcement of a picketing rally at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a petition was created on the White House “We the People” website calling for the Westboro Baptist Church to be recognized by the government as a hate group, which amassed over 155,000 signatures in the first 72 hours. By December 27th, the petition received more than 270,000 signatures, making it the most popular movement ever on the site. Two days after the hate group petition launched, three separate petitions asking for the government to investigate and revoke the church’s tax exempt status were created. As of December 27th, each one has exceeded the 25,000 signatures necessary for government acknowledgement with more than 172,000 signatures combined.
The church has been widely criticized for its outspoken views and high profile picketing stunts. According to the non-profit news blog Nonprofit Quarterly, political commentator Bill O’Reilly has called the church “evil” and “despicable.” The Anti-Defamation League has labeled the church “virulently homophobic” and accused its members of being anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-American and racist. The church has been labeled as a “hate group” by the nonprofit civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center.
We the People – Legally Recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a Hate Group
Nonprofit Quarterly – Students Support Targets to Oppose Westboro Baptists
House Committe on Veterans’ Affairs – The Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012
Southern Poverty Law Center – Topeka: A City Bulled into Submission by the Westboro Baptist Church