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. Buddha

    It seems that the face of Shirley Phelps gets uglier with every bigoted word that comes out of her mouth. I'm not kidding. Look at her.

    July 4, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
    • Akira

      Hatred makes one ugly.

      July 4, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
  2. AE

    He'll use a child as a human shield.

    July 4, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
  3. Bostontola

    Ironic that WBC hates the US, one of the only places they would be allowed to ex.ist with impugnity.

    July 4, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
    • Bostontola

      Apologies, it didn't seem to show up 1st time.

      July 4, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
  4. Bostontola

    Ironic that WBC hates the US, one of the only places they would be allowed to exist with impugnity.

    July 4, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  5. VoiceOfReason

    and on a side note...am I the only person that thinks the picture of Shirley looks like a guy? I thought she had a white mustache at first, them I read the picture description...So if she's cross-dressing, doesn't that go against the Bible too?
    BTW, if you want to see sinners and hypocrites, go to Church, they usually sit in the front row and make sure everybody in the church knows that they were there.

    July 4, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
    • Keeping It Real

      Have you ever seen Shrilly's youtubes? She's a wily and crafty debater and exceedingly mean. To me, her voice sort of sounds like a combo of Ann Landers and Cloris Leachman, though.

      She has 11 children... can't imagine what having a mother like that would be (fortunately, at least one of the older ones has escaped her clutches).

      July 4, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
  6. JayneQP

    I'm sorry, why are we taking a cult of vapid zealots seriously? It's absurd! Granted, they are irritating and a real bummer at funerals, but they are like that pitiful drunk guy at the party who says the most offensive things imaginable just to get some attention. If we ignore them, they will pass out in the bathroom and, if we're lucky, they'll wake up "naked" but with a little more clarity. Yeesh.

    July 4, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Often the ones carrying the signs are children. They are a sort of shield in an emotionally charged, potentially dangerous situation. That's a kind of evil that shouldn't be ignored.

      July 4, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
  7. DE

    They have labeled themselves as a hate group, no need for the government to do so.

    July 4, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
  8. woodin

    The church at least should have its church status with the IRS revoked............

    July 4, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
  9. Bootyfunk

    Westboro is just following the bible. the bible clearly says g.ays are to be put to death. they are being good christians. christians who have a problem with their stance on h.omos.exuals are cherrypicking the bible.

    shows that the bible is a terrible guide for good living.

    July 4, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
    • RE

      The bible also tells parents to kill their children who curse them. You ready to do that? It also says that the Earth is a flat disc and the sun revolves around it and the Earth is only 6,000 years old. Basically the bible is wrong on just about everything. A priest's daughter who loses her honor by committing fornication and thereby dishonors her father also, shall be burned to death. (Leviticus 21:9 NAB). But if this charge is true (that she wasn't a virgin on her wedding night), and evidence of the girls virginity is not found, they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her fathers house and there her townsman shall stone her to death, because she committed a crime against Israel by her unchasteness in her father's house. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 22:20-21 NAB). You agree with all this? If so you are as monstrous as the Nazis. If not you are defying the authority of the bible and your god. Make up your mind.

      July 4, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
    • AE

      Just because something is described in the Bible, does not mean that God approves of it.

      I believe some of the stories are poetic in nature, and speak to our heart.

      God provided for the people of Israel, but they turned their backs on his gifts.

      God told Israel not to have a king.

      But Israel saw all the other nations had a king, and wanted to be like them.

      God allows Israel to make their own choices, thus, if they are going to have a king, they are going to have to follow a lot of rules, like we find in Leviticus.

      If Israel listened to God, they never would have had to write up those laws.

      July 4, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
    • Bootyfunk


      it is a command to kill non-virgin brides, disobedient children and anyone working the weekend. lev 20:13 says g.ays are to be "put to death." that's a command, too.

      July 4, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
    • AE

      That law wasn't given for you and I to follow.

      Unless you are a time-traveling Levite priest trying to keep yourself holy...

      Also, you sign up to follow those laws. You volunteer to follow them.

      They were not applied to those who didn't try to live under them!

      July 4, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • Josh

      Yeah, let's hear from the unbelieving OCD crowd on how to apply the Bible to our lives today. I'm sure they know best, especially since they have no faith.

      July 4, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • Dippy

      You and me, not you and I.

      July 4, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
  10. tony

    Interesting that CNN re-publishes the picture for them.

    July 4, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
  11. ally buster

    Westboro Baptist is a HATE GROUP.

    The White House is occupied by a professional who is VERY intelligent, and he realizes that it is NOT his job to apply this label, despite how much he dislikes that organization.

    July 4, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
    • Posit

      Well, at least you're right that its not his job.

      July 4, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
  12. Skeptic

    Obama wants to be the President of ALL Americans, including the evil ones.

    July 4, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • Huh?

      I'm not sure what your point is. It seems kinda pointless.

      July 4, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
  13. The King

    Oopss.. Now the baggers are going to have to agree with Phelps and his band of trolls. Above all else, they feel compelled to oppose Obama, regardless.

    July 4, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  14. Doc Vestibule

    “Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”
    ― Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor

    July 4, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
  15. tallulah13

    Looking at the picture god me wondering: What does god have against Guy Fawkes? Or does he just hate V is for Vendetta?

    July 4, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
  16. Rory

    Why all the fuss? I thought liberals wanted diversity, and WBC is about as diverse as it gets. If liberals truly believed in diversity and tolerance like they say, they would celebrate this group's existence and rights. Oh that's right, they don't because they have a double standard and are hypocrites, they merely use those principles as tactics when it suits their own purpose and agenda.

    July 4, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • midwest rail

      two possibilities here...
      1. Deliberate trolling.
      2. Delusional idiocy.

      July 4, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I'm thinking it's a little of both.

      July 4, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • PikeRover

      Rory I would be just as appalled if a Liberal group went to a Religious gathering and did the same as WBC only denouncing their "God" in the same way.

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

      Ah. A gratuitious slam on liberals by someone who tacitly agrees with WBC's message.
      And what is the double standards and hypocrisy you speak of? Do illuminate us.

      July 4, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      @i'm sorry dave
      agreed. violence is bad. but that wasn't what was being discussed. the post was that liberals are hypocrites because we're calling out the westboro church for their hatred. rory said that makes us hypocrites. i disagree. westboro is free to say what they want - and liberals are free to criticize their prejudice.

      July 4, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • bthumble

      I vote for a combination: deliberately trolled delusional idiocy

      July 4, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  17. Rob

    Funny part about the governments response was that they "don't keep lists of hate groups": They keep lists on millions of law abiding Americans and the don't keep lists on hate groups!!!??? You'd think that WOULD be the the ones to keep lists of.

    July 4, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • Akira

      What list do you think you may be on, Ron? I'm just curious.

      July 4, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • Rob

      Who's Ron?

      July 4, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
  18. WOT


    July 4, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • Ron


      July 6, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
  19. Kevin Smith

    This article makes me want to watch Red State again

    July 4, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  20. Bootyfunk

    everyone's is railing the Westboro church. but as disgusting as they are, EVERYTHING they say is backed up in the bible. according to the bible, they shouldn't just be using harsh words against g.ays, they should be killing them.

    Leviticus 20:13
    If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

    it goes to show the bible is a terrible guide for good living.

    July 4, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
    • Theseus

      Ding Ding Ding!

      July 4, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • PikeRover

      For all of the people quoting the "Bible" about this, could you show me an original manuscript of any of it. That way we could know what the "real" version of it said not a copy of a translation of an edited translation of a copy of something even the most ardent believers say does not exist.

      July 4, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
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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.