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
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(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. CarrotCakeMan

    The President is correct, the federal government can't deprive the dirty anti-gays of their Freedom Of Speech. Fortunately, Americans are reacting to such vicious anti-gay Hate Speech by increasing our support for our family members, friends, neighbors and coworkers who are LGBT and for marriage Equality.

    July 4, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  2. Charlie Rocket

    Do guns protect the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness or promote death, coercion and descent into tragedy? It appears the latter is the reality.

    July 4, 2013 at 11:22 am |
    • Nick Smith

      I'm glad I spent over 30 years in the Army defending the rights of people like you to say things like that. I did it with a gun, too.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  3. AE

    God's spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled.

    There is NO law against behaving in any of these ways.

    Bearing fruit is a gift, NOT a demand (take your "OBEY" head band off, sister)

    July 4, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  4. Canuck

    Happy 4th from Canada. Everyone seems to be missing the fact that these whack-jobs are harassing families with their misguided thoughts at the worst moment of their lives. A good old fashioned "private conversation" away from others would seem to be in order....prob the only "language they can understand...

    July 4, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • Edweird69

      Actually, I'm glad they do what they do. They display, in full public view, what hatred looks like. It puts a face on an otherwise invisible, invisible force.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • Roll 'em


      Westboro's antics are certainly despicable, but these are the things that must be endured to ensure free speech for the rest of us. Thanks for the "Happy 4th" from the north.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:22 am |
    • Roll 'em

      A Mari Usque Ad Mare!

      July 4, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • AE

      What if your 6 years old daughter was killed in a tragic mass shooting, and they show up at her funeral.

      They scream that your daughter deserved to die. You ask them to stop and they label you a "F@G" and mock and make fun of you. You try to fight them, next thing you know they have your picture on a sign with you having s@x with another man.

      They show up at your work and scream "F@G" as you walk to your office.

      This goes on for 10 years.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • Dan

      We are Americans. Not Canadians. Most of us cannot listen to reason. Or will not.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Canuck is right, they are all about using other people's misery to advance themselves into the public eye. But here in the land of the free we must tolerate such intolerable shits. And act quietly outside of our law and our principles when the situation calls for it.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Keeping It Real


      1. You would be arrested for assault and battery and the Phelps's would sue the pants off you.

      2. They generally send only the women & children out on these demonstrations. Are you going to beat them up?

      3. They do hurt people's feelings, but they are mainly a very small group of annoying gnats.

      One thing that astonishes me though, is that in the 90s Fred ran for governor and senate several times – and quite a few people voted for him (almost 50,000 in one of the elections!). Maybe they weren't so outrageously, hatefully vocal back then, but Fred is a psycho... read the accounts of his son, Nate, who got out of there at age 18.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:29 am |
    • AE


      His children claim Fred Phelps physically abused them.

      This man needs to be locked up.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • Roll 'em

      @Tom, Tom, the Other One –

      How are you doing, my friend? Been to the range recently?

      July 4, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Hello Roll 'em

      What should we do with ourselves now that we're Chadless and, occasionally, censored?

      I'm preparing for 1000 yd match this weekend, in fact.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • Roll 'em

      @Tom, Tom, the Other One –

      Best of skill (no luck involved) to you this weekend. My guess is that individuals close to Chad (possible?) staged an intervention of some sort. He did seem to be nearing the fringe. The moderator situation seems to be a bit ironic, considering this is a professional journalism website. Oh, well, it is what it is.


      July 4, 2013 at 11:51 am |
  5. AE

    They are a joke.

    But when they picket funerals – that is straight up demonic. Avoid this clan.

    July 4, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  6. ShawnDH

    These freaks have done more than anybody to further the cause of gay rights. Thanks dummies!

    July 4, 2013 at 10:59 am |
    • wbcgottago

      Pray for their DEATH!

      July 4, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • wbcgottago

      Take them off THE PLANET!

      July 4, 2013 at 11:15 am |
  7. Jerry

    Why do you put these people on your site CNN, this is not a productive story!!!

    July 4, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • wbcgottago

      Remove them for Earth!

      July 4, 2013 at 11:18 am |
    • wbcgottago

      Pray that they BURN IN HELL!

      July 4, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  8. freedomluchador

    yes yes yes I knew he was the antichrist... LOL

    July 4, 2013 at 10:53 am |
  9. Felix Sinclair

    I hate the WBC. I hate religious hypocrisy. I hate censorship even more.

    July 4, 2013 at 10:51 am |

    • Good, Felix! That's very good. It's all about hate. Now use your hate, Felix.

      July 4, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • wbcgottago

      Pray for their DEATH!

      July 4, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  10. Bostontola

    On the 4th, I can say as an atheist, that I prefer to live in a country where people can believe in any god(s) they want, or none, rather than a country where atheism is law.

    July 4, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • Aaron

      Have a very happy and safe 4th!

      July 4, 2013 at 10:52 am |
    • What?

      Name one place in the entire world where atheism is law.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • dpeters11

      North Korea?

      July 4, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  11. QuietStormX

    I think these people doing these acts against returning solders dead or alive is really wrong and glad they are prevented with their perverted thinking. I'm Catholic and ver proud of it. When I was young I wanted to be a alter boy but moved shortly after that...

    July 4, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  12. tony

    At least the Westboro' church doesn't seem to want to express it's views using guns. Or call a special session on the Texas legislature to harm women. Perhaps there are more serious problems in the US to worry about?

    July 4, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • Roll 'em

      Good point, @tony.

      July 4, 2013 at 10:53 am |
    • Felix Sinclair

      The evangelicals figure these people make their Bronze Age mythical dictator look even worse.

      July 4, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  13. These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty

    Don't call them Baptists. They are a disgrace to the Baptist denomination...well any Christian denomination for that matter.

    July 4, 2013 at 10:41 am |
  14. These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty

    Here's the deal with Westboro: They are not a church. They are a group of lawyers that try to act as extreme as possible in order to get people to infringe on their First Amendment rights, and file a lawsuit against them. All of them (other than the children, of course) have obtained their J.D. and have made millions off of free speech cases. The best approach is to ignore them, and protect the families of those they are hurting.

    July 4, 2013 at 10:38 am |
    • Akira

      Um, who typically demonizes gay people? Hint: the GOP, and you, lol??.

      July 4, 2013 at 10:49 am |
    • ShawnDH

      Great lol. I'm glad to know you are a strong Republican supporter of gay rights like most Democrats. Or are you just a desperate troll and hypocrite?

      July 4, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • Carl Goulding

      "They are a group of lawyers that try to act as extreme as possible"

      Your making the point so much clear-er than these other comments. I think I remember reading this, as being the fundamental drive underlying this behavior of there's. They very carefully pursue a course of action designed to inflame emotion's, right up to, but do NOT cross a line, which would place themselves in the LEGAL cross-hairs.

      As manipulators, they are masters, and that must be the manner used to approach them. When their attendance at a soldiers funeral, has been announced, and a heavy response planned by veterans group's to face-off, they have failed to attend in the past. The people of this "quasi-church", as you state, are trained LAWYERS, so their not stupid. They are devoid of actual humanity in any shape or form. So, dealing with this "crowd" would best be served, by the same manner any other "group" would go about dealing with "rouge" lawyers.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  15. Akira

    Hitler's traveling death squads would be proud of your "final solution".

    July 4, 2013 at 10:26 am |
  16. Thought Purification

    Churches not sensitive to mourning families, be it families of soldiers, victims of school violence or people from streets, do not deserve to be recognized as non-profit organizations. Their status must be revoked.

    July 4, 2013 at 10:23 am |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I can't let you do that

      No organization should have non-profit status.

      July 4, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • HeavenSent

      You should ask the school that lacked giving you an education, you parents money back.

      July 4, 2013 at 10:41 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Dave: I agree with you and it would be wonderful in the grand scheme of it, however there lies the issue that the second they start paying taxes is the second they get to stick their noses in to all aspects of the public forum and they do enough of that as is.

      July 4, 2013 at 10:49 am |
  17. liberal disease

    Obama has no problem calling Romney a murderer

    July 4, 2013 at 10:21 am |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I can't let you do that

      Cite any time he called Romney a murderer.

      July 4, 2013 at 10:21 am |
    • shawnDH

      Whatever. This kind of desperate hyperbole is why nobody listens to you. No wonder you lost.

      Though I hope you did not vote for Romney if you are "pro-life." When Romney was head of Bain, he invested in Stericycle which is a company that disposed of aborted fetuses. Romney the "pro-life" abortion profiteer.

      July 4, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  18. I'm sorry Dave, I can't let you do that

    I hope you're being facetious.

    July 4, 2013 at 10:14 am |
  19. Vic

    ★ ★ ★ ★

    July 4, 2013 at 10:04 am |
    • Bostontola

      Same to you Vic, and to all Americans.

      July 4, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Have a happy, peaceful day 🙂

      July 4, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  20. Cheryldee

    First amendment rights, yada yada. But what kills me is that they are tax exempt. So they sue anyone they can to generate non-taxable income. Nice gig if you can get it

    July 4, 2013 at 10:01 am |
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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.