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Westboro Baptist Crock

Today, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church, protecting their right of free speech. This is a case where you can easily read the official court opinion — or at least the summary, rather than believing what some media pundit says about it.

The ruling was almost unanimous, with only Justice Alito dissenting. And you know what, despite what I think of WBC, I think it was the proper decision. The First Amendment to the Constitution applies even when we don’t like the speech being protected. Or as the Washington Post puts it, the right to be ugly. Really ugly.

On the other hand, there are plenty of other ways to go after WBC. The court decision mentions some postings to the WBC website that specifically denounced the plaintiff and which might be grounds for libel, but which they did not consider in this ruling. I would be more than happy if such a libel suit was successful, since the First Amendment does not protect against libel.

In addition, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is acceptable to place restrictions on the WBC protests — for example, requiring them to be a certain distance from a funeral. Or they may be in violation of hate speech laws.

As far as I can tell, the WBC does attempt to stay within the law, although they do occasionally slip up. There was an interesting post last month that claims that WBC is not even actually a real church, but is instead a moneymaking scam. After all, the founder of this “church” is a (now disbarred) lawyer, as is virtually every member of his family, and a large percentage of the church members (especially the ones who travel around the country picketing funerals) are lawyers. The scam is that they purposely use language as incendiary as possible, while staying within the law. Then, when someone fights back, they sue them for money for violating their rights. If this is true, it is one massively screwed up business model.

At the very least, I would love for the IRS to find a reason take away their tax exempt status. Hate does not a religion make.



  1. PatriotSGT wrote:

    I whole heartedly agree IK. While they’re are a vile hateful nasty people who disgrace every religion by calling themselves a church, free speech is for all. I know personally that some citizen activist groups like the Patriot Guard will counter WBC for Soldiers and others as requested.

    Wondering out loud, perhaps some of our legal scholars can interject, but does their speech cross into the hate speech category that is off limits. They seem to no where the line is concerning the yelling fire in a theater, but I’m curious if we have any hate speech laws that have been tested.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink
  2. starluna wrote:

    In the Court’s analysis, WBC’s speech did not constitute hate speech because they do not target any “suspect class” (race, color, creed, national origin). They pretty widely targeted any soldier, regardless of their racial, religious, or gender background. In addition, their speech addressed issues of “public concern”, primarily the claim that political decisions (alleged acceptance of homosexuality) had moral implications.

    There was an attempt in Congress to basically make it illegal to picket/ demonstrate at the funeral of soldiers. It was pretty quickly squashed because of free-speech considerations.

    There are prohibitions on hate speech. The most recent test was the cross burning case. This is notable because this is one of the few times Thomas ever spoke up in Court. In this case, the Court basically reaffirmed the principle that states can ban hate speech that targets a suspect class with the intent to intimidate members of that class. What’s important is that the speech needs to target protected groups. And since intimidation serves no public purpose, such hate speech could be viewed as crossing the line.

    I was actually surprised when I read the summary yesterday that the family of the soldier did not pursue a libel case on the basis of statements made on their website that specifically targeted the soldier. It seemed like that would have been a stronger case. Hopefully, with the Supreme Court’s nod, they’ll do that and bankrupt the WBC.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  3. Name wrote:

    I’ve heard rumors that the creator of the WBC does these controversial protests in hopes of stirring up a lawsuit against anyone that uses physical force on the protesters. Any truth in this? I suspect in this day in age when you can sue for spilling hot coffee on yourself, there may be some validity to this.

    As for the WBC, I think they are a bunch of loony idiots. They are at the extreme end of a religion (just like any other extremists). I see little difference in them from other extremists; other than physical violence.

    Unfortunatly, the 1st Amendment does protect them. As it was created for this exact purpose, to protect the right of people who wish to raise controversy and spread unpopular views and beliefs.

    The morality of what they are doing however, is horrifying. Protesting funerals of fallen soldiers. That is an act of unbelievable disrespect. I believe the best way to combat protests such as these is to (going back to the bully days of elementary school) pay them no attention. Don’t publicize their rants, don’t give them air time, don’t acknowledge their presence in the least. Until they resort (I sincerely hope they do one day) to violence to get their message across, they cannot be prosecuted.

    Just to clarify violence: I’m hoping one of these idiots throws a fist at someone or something minimal like that. However, I am sure they are strictly told not to resort to those measures so they can stay within their 1st right.

    As for the article in general, I wish to point out that the “The First Amendment to the Constitution applies even when we don’t like the speech being protected.” isn’t entirely true. In regards to speech, the amendment’s intention is to ONLY apply to unpopular speech.

    Say I started going around saying “I love pizza!” this isn’t controversial in the least. It’s designed to protect the people going around saying “I love gay sex” or “To hell with gays”. The 1st also does limit some speech, or doesn’t protect it to be more precise. For example you cannot yell FIRE in a crowed theater. That isn’t protected.

    I do wish there was some way to stop these people. However, without sacrificing out own rights, they are entitled to their positions and views.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink
  4. TJ wrote:

    Why does hate speech by definition have to be targeting a “suspect class”? Does that mean that I can say any nasty, mean, vile, hateful thing I want to any white males that I see?

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink
  5. starluna wrote:

    Name – regarding, “the amendment’s intention is to ONLY apply to unpopular speech,” that is an excellent point. It is good to remember these things.

    I would also add that this case was about tort liability. It wasn’t about criminal prosecution. Historically, the standards for tort liability are different (and lower) than for criminal prosecution. But the decision here raises the standard for civil tort liability to the same as criminal prosecution, at least in regards to hateful speech. I’m not sure, but my spidey sense is telling me that there may be some unintended consequences for doing this beyond forcing us to tolerate intolerant speech.

    TJ – if the hate speech was targeting white people than it would be suspect because we define “White” as a race. I know that may come as a surprise to some white males, but you are also part of a race group.

    Gender, unfortunately, is only a quasi-suspect class. Sex based classifications are only guaranteed to be considered a suspect class in situations regarding voting rights (because of the 19th amendment). There are three levels of legal review when it comes to gender classifications, and gender generally only gets medium level scrutiny at best, and often gets the lowest level of scrutiny. Except, again, with regards to voting rights.

    So, if there were a group out there engaging in hate speech that targeted white males only, then under the WBC ruling, that group could be subject to tort liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress. And, if they engaged in acts that were intended to intimidate in the state of Virginia (and other states with similar laws), they could also be subject to criminal prosecution.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  6. ebdoug wrote:

    Southern Poverty Law Center. Morris Deas. I donate to only one human charity-Southern Poverty Law Center. They keep track of hate groups and find ways to put them out of business. They can use Lawyers to fight lawyers in this.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink
  7. Sammy wrote:

    And I have the constitutional right to hope that an errant piece of a satellite lands on the Westboro church while the adults are inside.

    The court may be right in its decision, but that doesn’t mean these people aren’t vile, evil, disgusting pieces of shit.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink
  8. Iron Knee wrote:

    Sammy, don’t hold back. Tell us how you really feel!

    Name, sometimes I think you don’t actually read the posts before commenting. Did you see the next-to-last paragraph in the post and follow the link?

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  9. Bard wrote:

    So Dumb Question, Does this get rid of the “Free Speech Zones” ? I’ve always thought they were the most ridiculous thing ever. They took a court case trying to protect abortion doctors and patients and turned it into 1984.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  10. Bert wrote:

    Maybe people should start protesting their church on its grounds.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  11. PatriotSGT wrote:

    I’m with you Sammy!
    Have you ever wondered about errant drone strikes they happen all the time don’t they, or what if a Air Force bomber had a malfunction, remember when they lost a nuke….. or what if someone drew a picture of Mohammad and picketed with them, would that rile up the same guys who went after Rushdie and threatened southpark….

    Just wondering out loud. 😉

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  12. TJ wrote:

    Sorry, I misinterpreted “suspect class” to mean minorities (suspect groups?) within the class, but apparently it just meant the class in general.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  13. starluna wrote:

    The “free speech zones” that were set up around women’s health clinics are really “patient and staff protection zones.” I have some personal experience with these and I believe that they are totally necessary. The Court has upheld the creation of these zones, so long as they don’t effectively quash free speech. Part of the holding in the WBC decision makes clear that, while free speech cannot be silenced, it can be controlled. When WBC came to my neighborhood to protest against my local high school (because we have a gay-straight alliance student group and happened to be in the area anyway), they had to stay a certain distance away from the school grounds in order to allow the orderly operation of the public school. That has not changed with this decision.

    On the other hand, my husband and I were driving through the Smokey Mountains this past August (amazingly beautiful – btw) and stopped at the Spellman-Rockefeller Memorial. There was a sign indicating that it was a free speech area and warning people that the views expressed in the area were not necessarily sanctioned or supported by the National Park Service. My husband took a picture of me standing next to it looking totally amused at it. I suppose it prevents a few complaints by people unhappy with unpopular speech.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  14. Name wrote:

    @ IK

    Did YOU read the post? Did you miss this bit? “There was an interesting post last month that claims” The operative word in that being: CLAIMS. Or how about that last bit? “If this is true, it is one massively screwed up business model.”

    Perhaps you should read, comprehend and consider before you decide to comment on someone’s post. Perhaps you don’t understand what a question is. You know, the one where I ask “Any truth in this?”

    My comment is in regards to I’ve heard these rumors else where, not just here. But to my knowledge and to the writer of this article’s knowledge, they are only rumors and or speculation. I deduce this because the author’s use of the word “CLAIM” and phrase “IF IT IS TRUE”

    Once again, as in the other post, you prove yourself an ass.

    As for the link, it is also speculation. There is no actual proof of this being a scam. Sure, strong accusations and common sense would lead you to believe it as such. However, if there was concrete proof of it being a scam we wouldn’t be talking about WBC, because they would be behind bars for running a said scam.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  15. @Name

    I find it hard to believe that Iron Knee didn’t read the article… given that he’s the man that wrote it.

    Iron Knee is the site owner / primary writer, etc. Given your earlier complaint about reading comprehension, I’m finding your comments ironic.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  16. Laura Bonham wrote:

    Awesome blog! Keep up the good work! I check it every day.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  17. starluna wrote:

    I’m not sure that it is illegal to goad people into suing you in order to eventually be awarded legal fees. It’s not even about proof, or the lack thereof. The question would come down to what is the legal wrong? Fraud? Against whom? Inappropriate use of the courts? If that was the case, there are tons of law firms that could be accused of this as well, including public interest law firms.

    I agree that it is all speculation, and it feels quite plausible. Although I find what they do so distasteful that I admit that I am probably inclined to believe that they would do something like this anyway.

    It’s an interesting thought, though. I’m going to have to try to remember to ask this question next time I’m hanging out with AG/DOJ lawyers.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Permalink
  18. C.S.Strowbridge wrote:

    “At the very least, I would love for the IRS to find a reason take away their tax exempt status. Hate does not a religion make.”

    I’ll go one step further. The IRS should get rid of the tax exempt status of all churches. If they actually do charity work, then treat them like they were a secular charity. If they are run like a business, then treat them like a business.

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 1:09 am | Permalink
  19. @Starluna: If you find out anything interesting, do find some way to report it back! Like others, I’ve found WBC to feel like a scam, but I can’t see any way that legally they are a scam. It would be very interesting to hear ideas of what sorts of law would need to be enacted to make what WBC into a scam, without hurting our free speech rights.

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 3:27 am | Permalink
  20. PatriotSGT wrote:

    @ C.S.Strowbridge – thats an excellent point about churches and their tax status. In the city near me there are more churches then businesses. One third of the property in the city is exempt from taxing, either because its a church, a non-profit hospital or university.
    They should have to perhaps at least refile/prove their tax exemptness annually. Many are just a house that claims to be a church. I wouldn’t want to infringe on real actual churches, schools, but because they say they are, doesn’t mean they really are. But again, it takes manpower and may cost more to enforce then the revenue.

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  21. Iron Knee wrote:

    CSS, I totally agree. The first problem is the label “church”. What defines a church? Way too slippery. As PSgt points out, anyone can call themselves a church, and who is to argue.

    Even if they are a “legitimate church”, far too many churches run businesses. Why should those be tax exempt?

    Finally, shouldn’t giving tax breaks to religious organizations be unconstitutional? Separation of church and state and all that. Giving a huge tax break to a church sure seems like establishment to me.

    Instead, as CSS says, we can make individual activities tax exempt, as we do for charities, universities, and other non-profit organizations. It should be possible to set it up so that small churches don’t pay any taxes on their primary church building, on donations given to them and on salary paid to their clergy, but anything beyond that (which is not directly related to being a church) should not be tax exempt.

    Of course, given how powerful churches are in this country, it will never happen.

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  22. Sammy wrote:

    The church I belong to barely earns enough to cover expenses. In years when the offerings outweigh expenses, the “profit” is distributed for charitable giving with very little held back as reserves to keep the lights on. Just about every penny of overage is given to local food banks, shipping costs to get handmade quilts to poor nations, etc.

    I would hate to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater and compare the tens of thousands of small neighborhood churches who truly DO do God’s work with those who are fronts for huge profit-making businesses with preachers living lives of lash luxury (nice alliteration, Sammy!).

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  23. Sammy wrote:

    And for the record, I have not once, ever heard a pastor (at the churches I’ve belonged to) mention abortion or politics or taxes or liberals or conservatives or the evil of gays or anything. It’s a shame the loudest among so-called “Christians” spout the least Christian messages, while the rest just go about their lives.

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  24. TENTHIRTYTWO wrote:

    Thought this might be enjoyed. 🙂

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  25. PatriotSGT wrote:

    LOL – good one 1032. Who was the other regular contributor who said we should laugh at hate? Was that you 1032 or was that Thought Dancer? Maybe we should all surround them and laugh them out of their minds.

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  26. PatriotSGT: That would be me. I’ve done some study of successful rhetorical techniques, and laughing at the fundamental weakness that haters exhibit is a great way to remove their seeming power.

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  27. Patricia wrote:

    Thanks you for my anity break of the day with the exception of the NAMEless one???????

    Sammy, my experience is as yours. There is a distinct difference between the “store front” idiosyncratic ranters and those who actually absorb the ethical foundations of the people of the Book!

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink
  28. Iron Knee wrote:

    Sammy, I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear. I want all those things you describe — that neighborhood churches do — to be tax exempt. I just want to get rid of the requirement that you have to be a church to do those things. Any organization doing charitable stuff like that should be tax exempt. Why would they have to be a church?

    And just because some organization calls themselves a church, why does that automatically make them tax exempt? Seems unconstitutional to me. Reward the behavior (with tax exempt status), not the name.

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Permalink
  29. starluna wrote:

    I seem to remember that the history of the tax exempt status of churches is quite a long one, going back to the beginning of the Republic. It had something to do with the fact that churches were the major source of charity and social welfare until the mid-20th century (as well as the fact that churches still wielded a great deal of power through the early 20th century).

    Although I also wouldn’t be surprised if an argument could also be made that removing the state’s ability to decide which was taxable and which was not actually supported the separate between church and state. And would also remove the ability of the government to use taxing to suppress minority religions.

    But the latter is pure speculation on my part. The only thing I am sure about is that churches were the primary (and sometimes only) source of social welfare support until the mid-20th century.

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink
  30. starluna wrote:

    To finish my last thought, since churches were the main source of charity work, this justified their tax exempt status.

    Ok, now it’s time for bed.

    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 10:36 pm | Permalink
  31. Iron Knee wrote:

    Wow, I think this may be the first time I have ever disagreed with something said by Starluna. Usually, even when she disagrees with something I said, I find that her knowledge and experience ends up convincing me. Who knows, maybe she will convince me of this one.

    I don’t think the fact that churches were the main source of charity work in the past justified their tax exempt status (even in the past). I agree that charity work justifies an organization’s tax exempt status, but why limit it to churches?

    A big problem is that once you use a label, like “church”, you open the door to organizations calling themselves a church and gaining tax exempt status, even when they aren’t really a church. I could start the Church of Political Irony and make all my (nonexistent) profits tax exempt. So how do you tell which churches are “real” and thus deserving of tax exempt status?

    If you (or more importantly the IRS) can come up with a set of criteria that determine whether a church is deserving of tax exempt status, then why do you care if they are a church or not? Just use that same criteria on any organization to determine its tax exempt status. If any organization is primarily doing charity work, it should be tax exempt. If an organization gets together every Sunday to discuss moral issues and does everything else a church does (except for the God part), would you deny them tax exempt status? Why?

    The bottom line is that if the IRS (which last time I checked is a government organization) is in the business of defining what a church is and rewarding those that it approves of by giving them subsidies, then you have definitely lost the separation of church and state. If the government denies tax exempt status to an organization that does everything a church does except for the God part, isn’t the government promoting religion? In fact, it is promoting a specific religion. There are many Buddhist sects that do not believe in any god. Would they be denied tax exempt status?

    I don’t think it matters one bit that at the time of our country’s founding, churches were the main source of charity work. That’s like saying that men are the main source of new inventions, so we will only grant patents to men (and not to women).

    Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  32. starluna wrote:

    I obviously was not being clear. What I was offering was a sliver of the history of the religious tax exemption policies. As I recall from a few of my students who have theses in this area, and from my law classes years ago, the roots of the tax exempt status, or at least the modern justification of these historic policies, are based in part on the charity work that religious organizations have historically shouldered. I do, however recognize that religious organizations have historically also had a considerably amount of political power, and to some extent play on the sensitivity of the issue in order to reify that power.

    Religious organizations are tax exempt under the same code as other charitable organizations. To be clear, they were not the only organizations provided tax exempt status on the basis of charity work. The few non-religious hospitals that existed prior to the 1980s, settlement houses, other community based support societies, to name a few, were also tax exempt on charity grounds.

    Whether or not churches deserve tax exempt status today is a different question that I was not trying to address.

    To answer the latter questions, as I’ve read at least, the IRS and Tax Court have become considerably more flexible in their church tax exemption determinations since the 1980s. If you take a look at the general guiding criteria (,,id=155746,00.html) you’ll see that there is no theistic requirement, so a “God” is not necessary.

    The good thing about this relatively recent flexibility is that it does reduce the government’s role in determining whether an organization is a church for tax purposes. It allows for minority religions, especially those that are not theistic in orientation, to be given the same tax benefits that the Abrahamic religions have received.

    At the same, it may also have facilitated the apparent proliferation of “churches” that seem to be more about profit making for the church leaders than about spirituality or charity.

    Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Permalink
  33. Spike wrote:

    You can have all the lawyers you want and write reams of legislation till it comes out your arse, but you will never be able to criminalise stupidity and ignorance, let alone moronic thought.
    On free speech, what if what you were to say something you knew was wrong, yet willfully say it anyway. I am thinking of the case ot the woman who lost her job after someone found an old video of her and edited it to suit a political viewpoint. Sorry can’t remember the ladys name. At what point does free speech become manipulation, when in the hands of say, just randomly, Fox News

    Sunday, March 6, 2011 at 12:19 am | Permalink
  34. ebdoug wrote:

    Shirley Sherrod. word is that she is suing. I hope for all of use, she does.

    Re: Tax exempt status for churches: Again this is a distraction from the Tax exempt Karl Rove set up in the last elections to make political constributions tax deductible. It fits none of the laws of a tax exempt entity but the head of the IRS is a Republican Bush appointee (and another Moron)who allowed it. Means the Koch brothers can deduct all they give to Walker.

    Sunday, March 6, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink
  35. PatriotSGT wrote:

    That goes for ALL the PACs as well Ebdoug and there are alot of them.
    Great Discussion everyone.

    Sunday, March 6, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

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