By Tracy Bloom
Despite its vitriolic activities and protests that are political in nature, the hate group Westboro Baptist Church has somehow managed to keep its IRS tax-exempt status. But after its publicly announced plans to picket the funerals of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting “to sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment,” as church spokeswoman (and daughter of its pastor, Fred Phelps) Shirley Phelps-Roper tweeted, tens of thousands of people have signed petitions hoping to change that.
Three petitions have popped up on the White House’s We the People site to investigate and strip the bigoted organization of its tax-exempt status. All three have garnered the more than 25,000 signatures needed for the Obama administration to review them. A separate petition calling on the White House to legally classify the Topeka, Kan.-based WBC as a hate group has also reached the threshold for an official White House response, with more than 185,000 people signing it as of Tuesday morning.
Some of these petitions have been promoted online by the hacktivist collective known as Anonymous. The group targeted Westboro Baptist Church on Monday, hacking its website, taking over Phelps-Roper’s Twitter account and releasing personal information about the church’s members on the Internet.
Of the three tax petitions, the “Investigate the IRS Tax-Exempt Status of the Westboro Baptist Church” one has gotten the most people to sign it so far. It states:
“The Westboro Baptist Church is better-known for homophobic displays, suing people and picketing funerals than for providing Christian care to a community. Due to their harassment and politicking, their IRS tax-exempt status should be immediately investigated.”
Another petition asks the Obama administration to remove the group’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status and make it retroactive. That one reads:
The WBC is not and should never have been considered a legitimate church for tax-exemption purposes, and this could be declared so either directly or with legislation affirming any or all of the following:
1) The WBC does not engage in any charity comparable in scope to their public image. They are only known for hate.
2) The WBC is not inclusive of its surrounding community, restricting membership. It is regarded by some as a tax shelter for its family’s law operations.
3) The WBC uses invective speech under its name, actively denigrating classes of people—soldiers, homosexuals, and others.
Lastly, a third petition asks for both the removal of Westboro Baptist’s tax-exempt status and to have the organization reclassified as a hate group. According to the petitioner:
Westboro Baptist Church is legally recognized as a religious organization and therefore receives a tax exempt status under our laws. The Phelps family and their supporters use these tax exempt funds to finance a country-wide campaign against any person or group they feel promotes values that do not meet with their own. Most prominently they are anti-gay.
... By granting their tax exemption WE ARE FUNDING THEIR HATE. This must change.
All of this raises some important questions about the organization’s tax-exempt status, including—and perhaps most notably—why the group has been allowed to keep it in the first place. As Slate explained in 2011:
Because they avoid direct advocacy. Nonprofits are allowed to hold opinions on public issues, of course. Only overtly political activities (electioneering, for example) are forbidden. The easiest way to lose 501(c)(3) protection is to contribute to a candidate’s campaign, whether through funding, stated support, or the contribution of office space. But the WBC has never made such mistakes. While Phelps and company do target specific political figures such as Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, they keep their criticisms ad hominem (Gore is apparently a “famous fag pimp”).
Likewise, although a church may devote only an “insubstantial amount” of time or resources to lobbying, the WBC is careful to eschew pronouncements on specific legislation. They stick to “we hate homos” as opposed to “we support Prop 8.”
As Slate notes, the IRS has the power to revoke the church’s 501(c)(3) status only if it finds Westboro Baptist is operating for “mostly nonreligious purposes”—for instance, if it’s involved in political causes and activities.
What’s clear now is that petitioners outraged that Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t pay federal income taxes have gotten the White House’s attention on this matter. Now it’s time for the Obama administration to respond.
Protesters from Westboro Baptist Church.