How Westboro Baptist Church makes its money


By Jennings Brown

The controversial Westboro Baptist Church might be in for a big payday if they decide to sue the city of Charleston, South Carolina, for its temporary ban on protests during the funeral services for the nine church goers who were killed last week at Emanuel AME.

WBC announced on Twitter over the weekend that they will likely picket the funerals of those killed in the hate crime shooting, which is not surprising since the Kansas-based church has a record of showing up at virtually every controversial funeral and event, feeding off national anger and (admittedly) the media attention it gives them. What is surprising is that they might profit financially from their protests by suing the city of Charleston. The group has become proficient at filling its coffers through litigation against those who violate their constitutional rights.

On Tuesday, the Charleston city council voted to ban protests near memorial services for the next 60 days. The city passed the prohibition once the WBC announced plans to picket the funerals. South Carolina Press Association lawyer Jay Bender has already deemed the ordinance unconstitutional, according to The Post and Courier.

WBC's leader Steve Drain would not go on record to say what their specific plans were for Charleston, but he did denounce the city's response.

"All we're wanting to do is to tell people what the Bible really says about their manner of life, about their eternal prospects, and the Supreme Court has already weighed in on that manner, eight to one," Drain said, referring to a 2011 case in which the court ruled in favor of WBC for exercising their right to free speech during the funeral of a marine. The marine's family eventually paid WBC $16,510.

"It's a constitutionally protected right of ours even in the context of a funeral," Drain added. "That law made by the city of Charleston has no constitutionality to it, and in fact the only reason why they scurried to put that piece of phony legislation together is because they hate the word God."

It's not cheap for dozens of followers to gallivant across the country so that they can stand a few yards away and hold up provocative signs while spewing vitriolic messages at mourners in the wake of a tragedy. WBC followers, both current and former, have said the church spends $200,000 to $300,000 per year on travel expenses. They keep those costs down by traveling by vans whenever possible.

So how do they afford that? Most of it comes from within the organization, which consists of about 70 followers — most of whom are offspring of or related to founder Fred Phelps.

Members are required to give 30 percent of their income to the church, which is tax deductible for the donor since WBC is technically a religious organization. And since it's essentially a family church, that money goes back into the family. Many of its members have well-paying jobs in the medical and correction fields. Phelps, (who was disbarred by the Kansas Supreme Court in 1979 for his lack of ethics) and several members are lawyers, which means they know their rights and they know how to fight for them — and gain from them.

The church does not disclose how much it makes from litigations, but some of the cases have been well-documented. In the 1990s, WBC sued the city of Topeka several times for not providing the group protection during protests. They won $43,000 in legal fees.

WBC in 1995 won more than $100,000 from a lawsuit against the Kansas' Funeral Picketing Act because it was a violation of the First Amendment. Since the family represented themselves, all that money went back to the church.

In 2007, Shirley Phelps-Roper was charged under a Nebraska flag desecration law for letting her son stand on an American flag that she wore around her waist. A federal judge found the law unconstitutional and the city of Bellevue paid Phelps-Roper $17,000.

In an interview with NPR, WBC spokesperson Shirley Phelps-Roper spoke about the income the church receives from lawsuits against communities that prevent them from protesting — cases that often earn tens of thousands worth of fees.

So will the WBC be suing seek legal recourse if Charleston prevents them from protesting? "If we sued every time somebody tried to trample upon our civil rights, our rights of free speech, we'd be in court all the time," Drain said.

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