Phelps family loses in court

The Capital-Journal, Kansas/May 21, 2008

Whether the picket signs carried by members of Westboro Baptist Church carry religious or political messages is at issue on whether the church has to pay tax on the pickup truck used to carry the signs.

But the decision may be irrelevant if the church's appeal of a federal court decision in Maryland fails.

In fact, a decision Monday in the Maryland case removed a legal obstacle to beginning collections on the property.

This past October, a federal district court in Maryland found Pastor Fred W. Phelps Sr., Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, Rebekah A. Phelps-Davis and Westboro Baptist Church had invaded the privacy of and inflicted intentional emotional distress on the family of a Marine whose funeral was picketed by church members.

A jury awarded Albert Snyder, father of the Marine, compensatory damage of $2.9 million and punitive damage of $8 million. But on Feb. 4, U.S. District Court Judge Richard D. Bennett reduced the punitive damage to $2.1 million, for a total judgment of $5 million.

The church and the Phelpses filed a petition seeking a stay on the collection on that penalty. They also filed an appeal of the verdict.

If the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Maryland upholds the lower court decision, property owned by the three named Phelps family members and the church itself would be confiscated.

The appeals court there issued an order Monday denying the church's request for a stay in the execution of the lower court's ruling. No date has been set for the hearing on the appeal itself.

Sean Summers, a York, Pa., attorney representing Snyder, said rejection of the stay allows the court to proceed to collection of the church's property even though the ruling has been appealed.

The issue of the property tax on the pickup truck was heard Tuesday in Topeka before the Kansas Court of Appeals. Margie Phelps, an attorney and member of the church, argued that all of the church's messages are representations of what the church considers to be its religious purpose.

But Shawn Leisinger, assistant Shawnee County counselor, noted that Kansas law requires that a property must be used exclusively for religious purposes to be exempt from taxation. He noted the Kansas Board of Tax Appeals ruled the truck was subject to taxation because of evidence presented that there was at least some political content in the messages.

He said that of 602 picket signs cited in the BOTA case, 250 named public figures, many of them political figures.

Westboro Baptist Church is known for picketing and using other means to protest against acceptance of homosexuality. The strongly worded picket signs and other activities used during the pickets anger a number of people.

And that was used by Margie Phelps as part of her argument that the signs aren't political.

"If any member of this church were to endorse a political candidate - which they never do - it would be the kiss of death," she said.

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