Can the Westboro Baptist Church Be Stopped?

Caroline Cafasso, Pantherbook's O.G

The United States is in mourning while dealing with the aftermath of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. 26 people were shot and killed on December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Out of the victims, 20 were children, none older than 7 years of age. The 6 adults – all women – ranged from age 27 to 56. The gunman, Adam Lanza, also killed his mother before going to the school, and later killed himself.

One particular group sees this tragedy not as a random act of horrific violence, but rather a punishment. The Westboro Baptist Church, or WBC, plans to picket at the funerals of those murdered, claiming that the shooting was God’s wrath against the gay community. By first picketing at the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was beaten to death, the group rose to notoriety. Since then, the group has expressed their anti-gay views at numerous military funerals, and believe that President Barack Obama is the “anti-christ.” Members of the Church have announced their protesting plans on Twitter.

The WBC is also known, though, for announcing pickets but not following through with them, such as with the memorials for the Aurora, Colorado shooting this past July. Often times, the WBC photoshops pictures to make it look as if they were at the location. It is currently unknown how serious these plans are.

Connecticut is one of the 9 states with legalized gay marriage. The Church posted on their blog that the incident means that the state has been “justly judged” and that they “Thank God” for the shooter.

The Westboro Baptist Church has faced a significant share of opposition through the years, and legal troubles are not an unusual occurence. On August 2, 2012, Congress passed a bill that included restrictions on demonstrators at military funerals – a great limitation to the WBC. The group was also taken to the Supreme Court 2006 in the case of Snyder v. Phelps. WBC founder Fred Phelps and his fellow members protested their anti-gay views at the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a Marine who was killed in the Iraq War. Matthew’s father Albert Snyder took the case to court, but it was ultimately ruled in Phelps favor, citing the First Ammendment.

Can anything actually stop the Westboro Baptist Church from their tasteless, hateful protests? Unfortunately, not much. Freedom of speech is an Constitutional right, and though many disagree with the group’s opinions, we cannot legally silence them.

There is significant support to the idea that the WBC is a hate group. By definition, a hate group is “an organized group or movement that advocates and practices hatred, hostility, or violence towards members of a race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or other designated sector of society.” It seems to be a fitting and applicable term.

But does calling the Church a hate group actually accomplish anything? According to the FAQ page of the official FBI website, domestic hate groups investigations “are conducted only when a threat or advocacy of force is made; when the group has the apparent ability to carry out the proclaimed act; and when the act would constitute a potential violation of federal law.” The Westboro Baptist Church has yet to fall into those terms.

The Church currently has only around 100 members, with 80% being a part of Fred Phelps’ family. As more states legalize gay marriage, further national LGBT acceptance could either add fuel to the group’s fire, or put a significant damper on their cause. It seems that only time will tell what will happen to the Westboro Baptist Church. The group has no limits when it comes to the location of their protests, but perhaps they will eventually reach legal limits. Morality is, after all, subjective.