The White House vs. Westboro Baptist Church
Shirley Phelps-Roper of Westboro Baptist Church protests. Despite disagreeing with the church, the White House says it can't label Westboro a hate group.
July 3rd, 2013
05:56 PM ET

The White House vs. Westboro Baptist Church

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Editor
[twitter-follow screen_name='EricCNNBelief']

(CNN) –The Obama administration will not label Westboro Baptist Church a hate group, saying it's not the government's practice to apply the designation.

More than 367,000 petitioners had called on the White House to "Legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group." For months the Westboro petition was the top petition on the White House's "We The People" website.

Four related petitions, including one calling for the Internal Revenue Service to revoke Westboro's tax exemption, also garnered more than 300,000 signatures.

A White House official, speaking on background, told CNN that petitions that cross the threshold of 100,000 signatures are reviewed by policy staff and receive a response.

On Tuesday, the White House posted its response to the Westboro petitions.

Officially, the response to the requested hate group designation was "no comment."

"As a matter of practice, the federal government doesn't maintain a list of hate groups," the White House said.

Instead, labeling hate groups is the job of private groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, the White House said.

But the administration did comment on other aspects of the petitions, agreeing that protesting at military funerals - one of Westboro's favorite practices - is "reprehensible." An animated map posted online shows what the White House says is opposition to the church spreading across the country.

"We agree that practices such as protesting at the funerals of men and women who died in service to this country and preventing their families from mourning peacefully are reprehensible - a point that President Obama has made for years," the White House said.

In response to Westboro, Congress and Obama enacted a law in 2012 restricting protesters' time at, and proximity to, military funerals. The law followed a 2011 Supreme Court decision upholding Westboro's free speech rights to protest at funerals.

Led by its pastor, Fred Phelps, Westboro says soldiers' deaths are part of God's punishment on the United States for "the sin of homosexuality."

Members have traveled the country shouting at grieving families at funerals and displaying such signs as "Thank God for dead soldiers," "God blew up the troops" and "AIDS cures fags."

Westboro Baptist Church is not affiliated with a broader Baptist denomination. The autonomous church has 50 members, many of whom are members of the Phelps family.  The church says they have picketed more than 50,000 events.

A GIF map created by the White House highlights the ZIP codes of the people who signed the anti-Westboro petitions.  

The map shows heavy concentration of signers in Kansas and Connecticut, "two places that have unique insight into the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church," the White House said. The church is based in Topeka, Kansas. As for Connecticut, the Obama administration suggests the anti-Westboro animus stems from the church's threats to protest the funerals of students killed in December's Sandy Hook School shooting.

Gif Created on Make A Gif

Westboro responded to the petition on social media.

"About to swoon with glee! @whitehouse @barackobama telling the world about @WBCSays preachments!" they wrote, adding a picture of the president with horns and the title "AntiChrist Obama."


CNN's Bill Mears and Daniel Burke contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity

soundoff (973 Responses)
  1. Russ

    @ Observer:
    this might help you...

    July 4, 2013 at 8:49 am |
    • Russ

      posted in the wrong place

      July 4, 2013 at 8:50 am |
  2. TheSnail

    Hate has become an abused worthless word. Its all about Government taking our freedom, this happened in the Soviet Union and is happening now in America..

    July 4, 2013 at 8:46 am |
    • Nicodemus Grumpschmidt

      Yeah, thanks to an obstructionist congress that blocks every decent bill that would benefit the electorate of this country. But we stray from the topic at hand. Let's get back to it, shall we? Fred Phelps and his band of trollish bigots should keep an eye over their shoulders for the men in the white suits.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  3. texasfan

    "The autonomous church has 50 members, many of whom are members of the Phelps family."

    Yuck...just yuck!!!

    July 4, 2013 at 8:42 am |
  4. Mark Miner

    We live in a country where the WBC can protest at military funerals and it is protected speech, but when an 18 year old says something stupid on Facebook, he gets tossed into jail even though it was clear to everyone that he was telling a sick joke. I'm thinking we have our priorities totally out of whack here.

    July 4, 2013 at 8:41 am |
  5. Bob

    It should be designated a subversive organization and investigated and treated as such. The founding fathers put in the free speech bit to prevent the government from muzzling the press if politicians were caught with their fingers in the till or breaking the law in other ways. However, it was not intended to encourage hatred and religious intolerance by empowering citizens to attack other citizens in the public prints or by public demonstrations. Citizens have the right to protest against their government for choosing to wage war, but they have no right whatsoever to attack individual soldiers or their loved ones and families for carrying out the mandates of the government. The rights of the individual must come first in a democratic society. Hate groups that attack individuals and invade the privacy of other citizens should be treated as common criminals. They have no right to infringe on the rights of others and should be vigorously prosecuted for doing so.

    July 4, 2013 at 8:27 am |
  6. NMEast

    If the media, Yes, CNN, you included, would stop posting ANY mention of these people, they and their church would die a faster death. Not even if one of the Phelps family is involved in a speeding ticket, should any mention of their names show up in print, or on any newscasters lips. Take them out of the spotlight and they will go away.

    July 4, 2013 at 8:21 am |
    • Unsworth

      I agree. These people do not understand the Bible. These people should not call themselves Christians. They do not understand what it means to follow Christ.

      July 4, 2013 at 8:24 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Given the thousands of variations of the christianity cult, there is little evidence that anyone truly understands The Babble.

      July 4, 2013 at 8:29 am |
    • Kishmein Touchus

      Exactly right. The only media mention of Westboro should be when the congregation goes up in flames.

      July 4, 2013 at 8:30 am |
    • Saraswati


      Agreed, the media has made these people. They may originally have done so to show off the nastier face of the anti-gay movement, but the time in which these folks were remotely representative has passed. It's time to let them go and show the Southern Baptists and muslims and yes, secular anti-gay folk who would rather stick to their first reactions than pick up a journal article and learn.

      July 4, 2013 at 8:33 am |
  7. stevensrmiller

    Story said:
    Officially, the response to the requested hate group designation was "no comment."

    Then said:
    "As a matter of practice, the federal government doesn't maintain a list of hate groups," the White House said.

    That is some of the worst journalistic copy I've ever seen. WHAT DID THEY REALLY SAY???

    July 4, 2013 at 8:15 am |
  8. Dan

    If heaven is full of WBC members, hell can't be all that bad.

    July 4, 2013 at 7:47 am |
    • stevensrmiller

      See you there.

      July 4, 2013 at 8:13 am |
  9. 1gadawg

    wait, if the Feds can't or won't declare a group, any group as a 'hate' group, then how can they prosecute anyone or members of any said group, of hate crimes?

    July 4, 2013 at 7:44 am |
    • stevensrmiller

      The White House doesn't prosecute anyone. That's done by law enforcement, which, in turn, enforces laws written by the legislature, not the executive.

      July 4, 2013 at 8:14 am |
    • Saraswati

      You don't have to be part of a hate group to be charged or convicted of a hate crime, and the white house has nothing to do with the process.

      July 4, 2013 at 8:36 am |
  10. Phaerisee

    Isn't the Antichrist supposed to come saying that Men can be Gods? We should probably make sure that we don't nominate someone like that... oh wait......

    July 4, 2013 at 7:30 am |
    • randyb12

      Phelps and his baboons are a shining example of why America is great – we let the lunatics speak and hang themselves with their own stupidity. Phelps did more to help Gays and strike DOMA down than all the marching and episodes of Will & Grace combined!

      July 4, 2013 at 7:43 am |
    • Lou

      If you mark these guys as hate group you would have to declare all religion's as hate groups. They don't want to go down that slippery slop of truth......................

      July 4, 2013 at 8:24 am |
  11. Tyler

    July 5th marks the 2 year anniversary of the death of 3 soldiers I served with in Afghanistan. The westboro church got wind of their deaths and went to Michigan and knocked on the door of the home of one of those men. His grieving wife answered the door and they shook her hand and said “We just wanted to tell you how happy we are that your husband is dead!".....I hope every single member of the westboro church and their affiliate’s burn in hell.

    July 4, 2013 at 7:26 am |
    • Looper

      God will forgive them!

      July 4, 2013 at 8:51 am |
  12. ConcernedCitizen

    I think most of the negative comments on here are posted by Westboro members – in spite of what most people think, some are semi-literate. It's rumored that they post idiocy to news stories like this to encourage the fiction that the great majority of people don't believe they are are hate-filled lunatics. Unfortunately for them, it doesn't work – it's pretty obvious who the Westboro members are on here, posting under many different names. Hate filled lunatics tend to stand out in a crowd....

    July 4, 2013 at 7:21 am |
  13. Doc

    Isn't is bizarre how this group can go about spewing its hate & have no repercussions, but some kids joking posts on Facebook and ends up in jail for 5 months with $500K bail?

    July 4, 2013 at 7:16 am |
    • I'm sorry Dave, can't let you do that

      Even though it was absolutely ridiculous, that kid (whose name escapes me) posted a (albeit evidently facetious) threat to shoot up a school. I've never actually heard Westboro make threats. They just say everybody is going to hell and they laugh at horrifically violent incidences that they believe highlight Yahweh's vengeance. In a free society, neither would face any repercussions.

      July 4, 2013 at 7:28 am |
  14. guest

    Sounds like: Hate vs. Hate to me; I won't take sides. I understan both sides; I agree and disagree with both sides, they are boyh wrong and they are both right, but I think the White House should remain silent.

    July 4, 2013 at 7:07 am |
  15. I'm sorry Dave, can't let you do that

    I like Westboro. No cafeteria Christianity for them.

    July 4, 2013 at 6:56 am |
    • randyb12

      Yes...no Christianity at all. They are a huge reason the Atheist movement is growing so fast...the Atheist act more like a respectful, loving Christian than the Christians these days.

      July 4, 2013 at 7:40 am |
    • I'm sorry Dave, can't let you do that

      No, they just follow Christianity more than most self-described Christians. If adherence to the Old Testament is a facet of Christianity, then deep hatred of virtually everybody is also a key facet of Christianity.

      July 4, 2013 at 7:44 am |
    • Dan

      Hey Dave, if strict adhereance to the old testaments were required, we'd all have to be israelites.

      July 4, 2013 at 7:50 am |
    • I'm sorry Dave, can't let you do that

      Exactly. Yahweh picked his chosen people, so what's the point worshipping him if you're not Jewish? Remember what Moses did when he encountered a non-Jewish tribe in the desert? The guy made Hitler look like a pacifist.

      July 4, 2013 at 7:55 am |
  16. gee

    Too bad this jerk was allowed a full term gestation.

    July 4, 2013 at 6:50 am |
    • Padric2

      Maybe they could pass new laws about retroactive abortions.

      July 4, 2013 at 7:37 am |
  17. Jim

    I'll side with Obama over the Westboro Baptist cult any day.

    July 4, 2013 at 6:44 am |
  18. jasmine

    Love knows no hate. They cause strife all the time yet cant see that fact. Fred Phelps will have to come to judgement one day by his maker .

    July 4, 2013 at 6:27 am |
    • I'm sorry Dave, can't let you do that

      They follow the Old Testament Yahweh's teachings fairly accurately. Why would he judge Fred Phelps harshly, unless of course you are referring to some other deity, are you?

      July 4, 2013 at 6:58 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      His maker? I think his parents are likely dead...they are his 'maker'.

      July 4, 2013 at 6:59 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Prevails, a soul comes to earth born of woman, but God created each and every one giving them freewill to love and follow Jesus' truth or love and follow satan's lies.

      July 4, 2013 at 8:45 am |
  19. atomD21

    The only thing that will diminsh the power of the bigots and hate mongers at WBC is to ignore them. Continue the efforts to block them at their protests without acknowledging them with shouting back or even looking at them except to make sure they aren't getting through the line of people. The media needs to stop reporting on their activities and let them rot. Fred Phelps and his disgusting ilk thrive on people pointing cameras at them and giving them attention on the news. As much as I would like to see them hit by a bus at their protests, it is better to stop giving them and their hate any thought other than disgust and pity.

    July 4, 2013 at 5:27 am |
    • Mccainin4

      That's a good idea. I would suggest showing up at their rallies with large mirrors and shine them so that this inbred group can admire their resemblance.

      July 4, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
    • Mccainin4

      Or better yet – show up with megaphones set to echo their spewage back at them. It's hard to concentrate when your own words are echoing back a second later – it's called the stadium effect.

      July 4, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
  20. Roger that

    According to the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), hate groups' "primary purpose is to promote animosity, hostility, and malice against persons belonging to a race, religion, disability, s exual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin which differs from that of the members of the organization.

    Yet the White House doesn't consider the Westboro Baptist Church a hate group? Amazing.

    July 4, 2013 at 4:35 am |
    • atomD21

      They never said they don't consider them one, just that they don't officially declare hate groups as a practice. The WBC is a hate group plain and simple. There would be very few tears shed anywhere outside their ranks if the vehicles they were traveling in all crashed and there were no survivors...

      July 4, 2013 at 5:22 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.