After the Westboro Baptist Church announced that it would be picketing the funerals of the Sandy Hook shooting victims, 247,780 Americans have signed a petition asking the Obama administration to legally recognize the organization as a hate group — almost 10 times the number of people required for the administration to consider the petition. The Huffington Post reports that the petition, started on December 14, 2012, is the single most popular effort in the history of the "We the People" White House digital initiative.
The petition reads:
"This group has been recognized as a hate group by organizations, such as The Southern Poverty Law Center, and has repeatedly displayed the actions typical of hate groups.
Their actions have been directed at many groups, including homosexuals, military, Jewish people and even other Christians. They pose a threat to the welfare and treatment of others and will not improve without some form of imposed regulation."
In its discussion of the Westboro Baptist Church, the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, "Fred Phelps and his small congregation provide WBC's funding; the group neither solicits nor accepts outside donations. In addition to this income, the church makes money by winning or settling civil lawsuits involving the church. During the 1990s, the group sued Topeka multiple times for failing to provide sufficient protection during its protests. Although they lost most of their cases, WBC did win $43,000 in legal fees in 1993. According to Shirley Phelps-Roper, they also won more than $100,000 in 1995 in a lawsuit against Kansas' Funeral Picketing Act, which they claimed violated their First Amendment rights. Because the Phelps family represents WBC in court, they can put the fees they win towards supporting the church."
Proponents of defining the group as a hate group note that it might prevent the organization from maintaining its non-profit status with the IRS, as a related petition calls for. Legally defining the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group — so it joins the ranks of 1,000 other organizations already considered to be hate groups by the SPLC — is a complicated matter, federally speaking.
The FBI defines a hate group as "An organization whose primary purpose is to promote animosity, hostility, and malice against persons belonging to a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin which differs from that of the members of the organization, e.g., the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazi Party."
The FBI further notes, '"Hate itself is not a crime — and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties." Hence, most federal legal action towards organizations like Westboro have to do with specific incidents, namely hate crimes (or, occasionally, acts of domestic terrorism). Hate crimes are not generally federal offenses, but rather state or local crimes. Thus, federal intervention in hate crimes is based on crimes of bias which constitute civil rights violations, which are within the FBI's jurisdiction. While FBI currently recognizes that groups can carry out hate crimes, it prosecutes individuals rather than groups, except in incidents of domestic terrorism. The FBI only investigates hate groups when "a threat or advocacy of force is made; when the group has the apparent ability to carry out the proclaimed act; and when the act would constitute a potential violation of federal law."
The label itself is still contentious for some. It remains unclear whether or not labeling Westboro a hate group would truly enable federal action to stop members from protesting or picketing. (And, many would argue, doing so would constitute a violation of free speech.)
Nonetheless, the popularity of the petition may lead to a federal response to the Westboro Baptist Church. President Obama has already responded to other petitions on We the People related to the Sandy Hook shooting. And given the general anger surrounding the Sandy Hook protests, the president may have to respond to the Westboro Baptist Church — again.