Federal judge wants detailed Phelps financial data

The Captial-Journal, Kansas/February 22, 2008

A federal court hearing next month in Maryland is designed to lay out the financial situation of Westboro Baptist Church.

The matter is a $4 million question. That is the difference between what the Phelps family says it and their church is worth and the amount awarded to the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, whose funeral last year in Westminster, Md., was picketed by members of Westboro Baptist.

The church says it doesn't have enough assets to pay a $5 million judgment awarded to Snyder's family.

Westboro Baptist regularly pickets funerals of members of the U.S. armed forces, contending the deaths are God's punishment for the country's support of homosexuals.

Snyder's father, Albert Snyder, sued the church for intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

A jury found in his favor and awarded him compensatory damage of $2.9 million and punitive damage of $8 million. But a federal judge on Feb. 4 reduced the punitive damage to $2.1 million, for a total judgment of $5 million.

In York, Pa., Sean Summers, an attorney representing the Snyder family, said Thursday afternoon that U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett had scheduled a hearing for March 6 during which Westboro Baptist is to supply detailed financial documents to indicate the church's true monetary worth.

Summers said the church made a claim that its net worth was about $1 million and therefore couldn't pay the judgment.

In a letter from Bennett obtained by The Topeka Capital-Journal on Thursday, the judge ordered Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis to appear at the March 6 hearing and bring the following:

  • A certified financial statement prepared by an independent accountant reflecting all assets and liabilities.
  • Bank statements reflecting the defendants' account information and balances.
  • Copies of deeds for all real estate in which the parties have an ownership interest and information on any mortgages on the property.
  • A list of all of the shareholders of the church corporation.
  • Personal tax returns for pastor Fred W. Phelps Sr., Phelps-Roper and Phelps-Davis.

Meanwhile, an attempt by the church to get a U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning funeral picketing laws across the country has been denied.

The court on Tuesday rejected a petition from the church for a writ of mandamus and/or prohibition.

Phelps-Roper, a church member and attorney, said Westboro Baptist contends that laws placing restrictions on where members may stand and how they may conduct themselves during their antihomosexual protests amount to "prior restraint" and should be considered unconstitutional.

She said she wasn't terribly surprised by the court's refusal to address the issue, but said, "It's a question of when, not if, they are going to have to deal with this."

Phelps-Roper said the petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was in response to states that have passed laws restricting the picketing of funerals, not just the Maryland case. She said the various state laws vary greatly.

Montana provides for the greatest distance separation, requiring pickets to remain 1,500 feet away from the funeral site.

She said all of those laws are meaningless in practical terms. She said the church never pickets closer than 1,500 feet, anyway. But Westboro Baptist objects to what it considers a violation of the free speech protection of the U.S. Constitution by those state laws.

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