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. jim

    White House vs. Westboro. Can we agree that both are inbred nutcases that hate America?

    July 4, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I can't let you do that


      July 4, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • Akira


      July 4, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
  2. Colin

    Religion is to hatred what fertilizer is to plants. The sooner we grow up and accept that there is no Christian, Muslim, Hindu or other sky-god watching over us, the sooner we will be able to confront the challenges of our species like rational adults rather than like bickering, fairytale dependent children.

    July 4, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I can't let you do that

      To hate is an inescapable facet of human nature. Religion is just one of the many outlets for hate. Religion is also an outlet for those who wish to do good.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • jim

      I am reminded of the South Park episode where Cartman awakes 500 years in the future, and God has been replaced by Science and Reason.

      They were still blowing each others' heads off.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • AE

      Sorry, there is too much evidence for good being done through religion.

      And also there is evidence of evil done with no religion involved.

      There is evidence of people bickering like children on this board who have no religion.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I can't let you do that


      AAA- Allied Atheist Alliance is the only rational name for our atheist collective. All those who disagree, science damn them.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Sorry, there is too much evidence for good being done without religion or by religions with drastically different beliefs than yours.

      And also there is evidence of evil done with your specific religion involved.

      There is evidence of people bickering like children on this board who have religion.

      July 4, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
  3. Peter

    Sick, sick people.

    The usual fringe group which takes a legitimate religion and twists it into something unrecognizable.

    This happens in all religions.

    July 4, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
    • Colin

      That's the problem, everybody considers their religion to be the one "legitimate religion."

      July 4, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • AE

      That kind of sounds like what you do, Colin.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
  4. Nick Smith

    How come someone hasn't knocked their teeth out?

    July 4, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • KaneHau

      Because quite a few of the Westboro members are lawyers and they sue if anyone gets physical. It is one way the fund themselves.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • KaneHau

      sorry 'they' (in that last sentence)

      July 4, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
  5. Ray

    Usually when a person or group have an intense hatred for a group, there's a deep-seated psychological reason. We see this time and time again with politicians who get elected on a rabid anti-this or anti-that platform, only to get busted doing these very same behaviors.

    The only rational conclusion is that Fred Phelps is a h0m0ph0be because he has harbored secret desires for men his entire life. May this truth become revealed sooner than later.

    July 4, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • Akira

      There is quite a lot of data to support this behavior from THIS century, lol??. Do keep up.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  6. Thankyou,WBC

    God loves EVERYONE PERFECTLY. Even you, Mr. Phelps! Thank you for working so hard to shed light on how ugly hatred is and bringing it into the limelight. There's not much in this country that all people seem to agree on, but your deplorable antics are despised from coast to coast. It's actually quite an amazing thing you are doing, even though it seems to have exactly the opposite effect of what you intend! You are doing more to give everyone something to agree about than you will ever know. God bless!

    July 4, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • MaryM

      lol, well I guess that is one way to look at it

      July 4, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • jazzguitarman

      Yes, I assume groups like this helped push some Christians that were conflicted with regards to gay rights to support SSM and equality. i.e. they reflected; I'm I being like these guys', and that helped them change their stance.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • @jazzguitarman

      That is my hope.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
  7. 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 11:50 am |
  8. Rath R. Weird

    I am surprised at the patience of the Lord and its flock suffering the imbecility of this small bunch of particularly inbred hicks. I am told that the Old Testament deity was much swifter in its ire. It's also very frustrating to watch our liberties exploited by a herd of hateful trolls. These Westborrowing worms show up here they better bring their own ambulance.

    July 4, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  9. Question

    Has anyone actually taken a look at the signs they carry? Is that what a Christian church should be doing?

    July 4, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • MaryM

      They are not a church, especially a Christian Church. They are a hate group, plain and simple. But unfortunately, our government can not label them as a hate group

      July 4, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • jazzguitarman

      Mary, I believe they are a church as defined by the IRS (i.e. they don't pay taxes). And with the current IRS scandel I don't think that will change (because even mainstream churches would come to their defense since they are very concerned about their tax status changing).

      July 4, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • No.

      They are not a Christian group. They are the Westboro Baptist Cult. They spew their own special little flavor of hate and really, they should just be ignored like the bratty little schoolyard bullies that they are.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Of course they are a Christian church. There's no way to disqualify them as one. Only god can know if someone is "saved" and only god can know if someone is obeying his commands. Is there a single Christian disagreeing with the WBC who would also not want a man to go kill his son on a mountain top because it was god's command to him? Is there any Christian disagreeing with the WBC who would also not want the Israelites to murder every man, woman, child, and animal in a town they make war against?

      Since god has commanded far "worse" than what the WBC does, Christians have no way to determine that WBC is not doing the perfect will of god.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Has anyone taken a look at the horrific nature of the Christian god when he commands the slaughter of entire cities and slaughters a planet full of people in a global flood? Is that a Christian thing for god to do?

      July 4, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • Nicodemus Grumpschmidt

      Spot on, Question, spot on! 😉

      July 4, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
  10. AE

    Fred Phelps is all for free speech, until...


    I never understood why, when [the media asked him],

    "Why are you so against the h.mos.xuals? Did you have a h.mos.xual experience? Do you have h.mos.xual tendencies?"

    And he would get so mad, he would shut down. And he'd be like, "I can't talk to this person anymore, they're stupid."

    His reaction to that was stronger than any other question you can ask him.

    So I always wondered that – why does he get so mad?

    If I'm not g@y, I'll just say I'm not g@y. And I'm not going to freak out, like, "Why are you calling me g@y?"

    I always thought that was super strange. … I don't know what happened there, so [speculation] is all that I can leave it at. But something happened, and something made him change his mind about the military, and in turn have kind of a crusade against s@xual immorality and h.mos@xuals.

    July 4, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • PaulD

      Obviously, he either hates gays so much that he considers it the ultimate insult, or he has something to hide in this regard.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  11. Cpt. Obvious

    Their Christianity is as "true" as any other group claiming it. Isn't their interpretation as valid as any other Christian group's?

    July 4, 2013 at 11:44 am |
    • AE

      Not according to the Bible.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • jazzguitarman

      Since there is no final 'judge' of interpetations assocaited with so called 'holly' books, yes, any and all interpetations are as valid (or I would say invalid), as others.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:53 am |
    • AE

      Not according to the Bible

      July 4, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • Keeping It Real


      Shirley Phelps-Roper (Fred's daughter) would beat you up one side and down the other with her Bible quotes and justifications for their stances (Fred, not so much anymore, at his advanced age).

      July 4, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • PennyK

      Please list some specific verses that actually draw a line separating this church from many of the more militant Conservative ones that also protest gay marriage and the like. To me, they just happen to be on the most extreme end, but plenty of other groups, some quite large, aren't all that different.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      There is no method in the bible that can be used to determine which interpretation is more or less correct than any other; therefore, the WBC might be the ONLY one true church following god's word. You Christians have no way to determine either way, anyway, at all.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • AE

      When we live by God's spirit, you will know by the fruits of our labor.

      James 3:13

      Are any of you wise or sensible? Then show it by living right and by being humble and wise in everything you do.

      But if your heart is full of bitter jealousy and selfishness, don't brag or lie to cover up the truth.

      That kind of wisdom doesn't come from above. It is earthly and selfish and comes from the devil himself. Whenever people are jealous or selfish, they cause trouble and do all sort of cruel things.

      But the wisdom that comes from above leads us to be:

      and sincere.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • AE

      @ Keeping It Real

      Fred Phelp's son and daughter have testified that he is a complete phony. And that he abuses little children.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious


      So? What excuse do you give for god's actions(slaughtering millions in the flood) that do not follow those "fruits of the spirit?" What excuse do you give the Israelites for not following those "fruits of the spirit" when they obeyed your god and slaughtered thousands of women and children?

      Your excuse is that god knows more than we do, and thus when he drowns millions or commands people to kill their children or slaughter a town full of people, it really is love and god's will because god's ways are higher than our ways and he knows more than we do and so what seems like "not-fruits-of-the-spirit" really are his will. WBC can claim the same thing and you have no legitimate method to differentiate and make certain that they are wrong.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      So he's a catholic? Interesting. . .

      July 4, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • AE

      This is God's creation, not mine.

      Ask Him. Humbly and selflessly ask him to reveal Himself.

      Ask, why, when seeing the people he love so much turn and become evil, did he get sad and let a flood end their misery?

      July 4, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      So wiping out pretty much everybody in the then known world, and maybe the unknown too, is now to be viewed as an act of mercy? When a human uses this excuse for murder, they are usually also considered to be a monster – perhaps a sick (mentally ill) monster, but a monster nonetheless. AE, your cult's craziness knows no bounds.

      July 4, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • AE

      Well, you don't seem to represent anything but hostility.

      Where is your act of kindness or love?

      I have an all-loving God that is present.

      You seem to have a vengeful, judgemental, hostile God who is distant.

      And you seem to suggest I should listen to you? Why?

      July 4, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
  12. vraiment

    Les modérateurs de ce blog se livrent maintenant à la censure des idées. C'est tout autre chose que d'imposer des restrictions sur le langage profane et les attaques personnelles. Je soupçonne Daniel souffre de complexe de Napoléon.

    July 4, 2013 at 11:44 am |
  13. TeaBagParty

    Tea Party really needs to be labeled a hate group. Government has already sicked the IRS on 'em... which is a start... now time for next step.

    July 4, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  14. Disgusted

    Free speech is a great thing, but we have to be able to take responsibility for it too. One day their"free speech" is going come around full circle and bite them in their behind. We'll see how they handle it then.

    July 4, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Nick Smith

      We'll see if they turn the other cheek then.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:51 am |
  15. Love One Another

    Jesus has told us in Scripture to Love One Another. Is this organization following that directive, we need to ask?

    July 4, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • PennyK

      Where's the love in any church that preaches against treating gays as equals?

      July 4, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  16. o3

    free speech suffers westboro while westboro would not suffer free speech. and therein lies all the difference.

    July 4, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  17. MaryM

    There are many ways of blocking the Westboro Baptist Church from picketing the funerals. One way if for the police or city Official tell them that they cant guarantee their safety and thr WBC either don't show up or pack it up and go home. Canadas police do it all the time.

    July 4, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • Edweird69

      Yes..these cowards hide behind our brave police and military forces. Would love to be alone with any one of them in a dark alley! They'd be begging for mercy, I assure you.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:35 am |
  18. Why Anti-Love

    It is a dire Shame that any organization that considers itself to be a Christian church would mistreat so many people that way in this day and age! God certainly cannot be amused. Shame on them! Great Shame!!

    July 4, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  19. Ralph_in_FL

    To the anti-religious, Westboro Baptist is the gift that never stops giving.

    July 4, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  20. Edweird69

    They were at the last Phoenix Pride festival. It was hilarious watching all the taunting going back and forth. A large truck with loud speakers pulled up, played "Believe" by Cher. I did a little lip-synch show for them... they couldn't handle the audience watching me, instead of listening to them. It was a BLAST!

    July 4, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • AE

      When they picket funerals of children in Kansas, the bikers show up and drown their hate speech out.

      I used to get annoyed by the sound of loud bikes.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Edweird69

      @AE – yeh, I'm sure my entertainment would take on a different feel, at a child's funeral vs. pride festival. It's hard to comprehend someone doing something so dreadful at a funeral. I plan on pizzzing on Shirley and Fred Phelp's grave someday. My brother lives near them. Someday when I visit him, I can live out my plan... pizzzing on their graves!

      July 4, 2013 at 11:32 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.