How does hate group fund national protests?

St. Peyersburg Times/April 17, 2010

ampa - Shirley Phelps-Roper isn't bothered when people describe her clan as the "most hated family in America." To her, that's good press.

It's what happens when you protest at funerals of U.S. troops with signs saying things like "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." It's what happens when you insist that almost everyone in "doomed America" is going to hell - gays, Jews, Catholics, West Virginia coal miners.

And, yes, even Bon Jovi.

But as members of the Westboro Baptist Church travel from their Kansas homes to protest in Hillsborough County today through Tuesday, the church's hateful message is less intriguing than how the members finance demonstrations around the nation.

The group, composed largely of Phelps-Roper's extended family, claims to have participated in 43,000 protests in the past 19 years without accepting any outside donations.

Church members say they pay the costs themselves.

As Phelps-Roper, a church leader, notes: "Who the hell is going to give us anything?"

Public records, interviews and past news coverage reveal a tax-exempt church that appears to have no significant income other than the donations of its 85 members, and the occasional cash generated by the litigation their protests spawn.

The group, which espouses a fire-and-brimstone Calvinist theology embracing a vengeful God, said it spends about $200,000 annually on protests. The Hillsborough trip, Phelps-Roper said, will cost $2,000.

"It's difficult to figure out how Shirley can raise 10 or 11 children and simultaneously travel the country a great part of the year," said attorney Sean Summers, who has battled Westboro in court. "It seems nearly impossible."

Westboro plans four protests in Hillsborough, including at a concert by the rock band Bon Jovi at the St. Pete Times Forum. The church says Bon Jovi has failed to spread God's word.

On Sunday, Westboro will protest the Without Walls International Church and its female pastor, insisting that pastors must be male. Members also are planning to picket at Plant and Tampa Catholic high schools.

Westboro's overriding message is that an angry God is killing soldiers and punishing the nation for its tolerance of homosexuality. It has protested at numerous funerals of U.S. troops.

The father of a Pennsylvania Marine killed in Iraq sued Westboro in 2006 over its protest at his son's funeral. The father was ordered by an appeals court to pay Westboro $16,510 in costs, ruling that it had a First Amendment right to demonstrate.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear an appeal of that decision this fall, a potential bellwether case on First Amendment rights.

The U.S. Northern Command, monitoring protests at military bases, issued an advisory about Westboro in 2005 saying church funding came from litigation.

"This group does employ passive-aggressive techniques intended to provoke a hostile response or offensive reaction from others," Northern Command wrote. "This group will then file a civil action in an effort to reach a settlement in order to fund future activities."

But even some Westboro critics say the church's few legal victories wouldn't cover its costs.

"There just aren't as many lawsuits as people speculate about," Summers said.

Phelps-Roper, 52, said litigation funds nothing. Church members - 80 percent of them are related by blood or marriage - cover their own expenses and tithe to the church, she said.

"We work. We pay our own way. We don't ask for anything from anyone,'' Phelps-Roper said. "If someone sends us a check, we return it with a nice letter."

Numerous family members are attorneys and work for a family law firm, including Phelps-Roper. Others have jobs in Kansas state government, including the state's Department of Corrections.

The Phelps family "donate their money to the church. They get a tax deduction. The church gets the money. And they get it tax-free," Summers said.

In court filings, Westboro has claimed $442,800 in real estate holdings, an $86,000 mortgage and $50,000 in cash or personal property.

But critics say those modest numbers are untrustworthy.

Nate Phelps, 51, said he left the family when he was 18 because he had grown to hate his father, Westboro's pastor and founder.

As a child, he said, he and his 12 siblings were forced to sell candy around Kansas, telling people that the money would be used for a new church organ and piano.

But Nate Phelps said that was a lie because the Topeka church also was advertising to obtain donated pianos and organs.

The candy money funded the family's living expenses in the days before it began protesting, he said. The church now requires members to pay it 30 percent of their income, rather than the traditional 10 percent tithe, he said.

Westboro insists he is lying on all of his accusations.

Phelps-Roper said the money comes from God. She said, "He loans us what we need."

Times researchers Will Gorham and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

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