The infamous Westboro Baptist Church is planning to come to the Hillel at Stanford University on Friday, Jan. 29 at 8:00 AM. For those unfamiliar with this zealot group and its disgraceful history, we at Fiat Lux will spend this week giving you a rundown of what the Westboro Baptist Church is, what it stands for, and who its members are. Our coverage of the WBC began with my publication of an extremely inflammatory letter they sent me to explain why they were coming to Palo Alto. In part one of the Countdown to Westboro Baptist Church at Stanford, I looked into Fred Phelps, the man behind the WBC. In part two, Ruthie Arbeiter tried to find some method to their madness. Tonight we continue with the legal history of the Westboro Baptist Church.
In response to Westboro Baptist Church’s visit, there is a flier making the rounds (more efficiently than anything I can remember in my two and a half years here) on campus that includes this passage under a section titled “Safety Guidelines”:
Please DO NOT engage the members of the Westboro Baptist Church IN ANY WAY — not verbally, or physically. They make money suing people who “violate” their rights; they’re very good at provoking people into doing just that.
Some have suggested Fred Phelps and his church are simply a traveling scam whose only aim is to make money by getting sued, and that they don’t even believe their own philosophy. Still, how well does this claim stand up? How successful have Phelps and his associates been in suing those who have violated their rights? As an aside, I should note here that I object to the sarcastic quotation marks found in the flier. Phelps and the WBC may in fact be the vilest people on earth, but that does not mean they don’t still have the same rights as the rest of us.
The answer lies in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Fred Phelps timeline (from 2001):
Before the end of his legal career in 1989, Phelps will file some 400 suits, mostly in federal court. Estranged son Nathan Phelps will claim later that part of his father’s strategy is to file frivolous lawsuits in the hope that his targets will settle to avoid the costs of defense.
The entries just keep getting better:
Phelps files a $50-million class action suit against Sears after a local outlet is several days late delivering a television set. Litigation continues for six years and is eventually settled with Sears paying Phelps $126 — about $60 less than Phelps’ son originally paid for the TV, which he never receives.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in that timeline, so I’ll sum it up. Firstly, Phelps has been devoted to filing frivolous lawsuits for longer than he has been devoted to gay-bashing. Apparently that really began in earnest in the early 90s, well after he had sued President Reagan for appointing an ambassador to Vatican City, and Washburn University for reverse discrimination for not admitting his children.
Secondly, Phelps had some notable wins. He won nearly $20,000 in a 1978 case against a school. In the mid-1990s, he absolutely took the City of Topeka and Shawnee County to the cleaners, winning around $200,000 in compensation for legal fees. It is worth noting here that these legal fees are presumably paid to Phelps Chartered law firm (founded by Fred Phelps, and its current roster of attorneys is either directly or by marriage related to Phelps), then recycled back into the WBC rather than paying outside lawyers.
Still, one wonders if that is enough money to sustain the church, even if we assume the WBC is winning a wide variety of smaller settlements being won across the country (with help from the ACLU), it does not seem as lawsuits alone would provide enough money to run an organization that allegedly spends $250,000 a year on picketing. That they have tax-exempt status as a church helps.
Despite those successes, WBC’s relationship with the law has been prickly at times. I mentioned on Tuesday that Phelps was disbarred in the state of Kansas in 1979, though he can still sue in federal courts. In addition, his nine (of thirteen) non-estranged children are all lawyers. Still the Phelpses have had their issues with the law.
Albert Snyder, a military father sued Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church, and other affiliated characters in 2006, winning a verdict of $10.9 million for picketing his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s funeral. However, later judicial action reduced the award to $5 million, and after that, the award was struck down entirely. It is unclear if action is still pending, but it does not appear any higher court was willing to hear the case (UPDATE: Albert Snyder wrote to me to say that they are still waiting to hear if the Supreme Court will hear their case).
While they dodged a bullet in that case, they have suffered some setbacks and embarrassments at the hands of the law. A couple Phelpses were arrested for disrupting a Brown v. Board of Education dedication in Topeka. Shirley Phelps-Roper was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor by having her son stomp on an American flag. There was also one incident that led to Benjamin C. Phelps being convicted of battery for spitting on somebody, and Fred Phelps being convicted of disorderly conduct for ruining a birthday party.
All in all, it seems that the Phelpses use the courts more as a weapon than a means of earning a living–although I frankly have no idea how they can support themselves. Are there family members earning a legitimate living? Do they sustain themselves on donations? One shudders at the thought. I’m not a lawyer, but it does seem that if you should not engage the Phelpses and their affiliates because they will sue you, and that will be annoying, likely resulting in legal bills and a general waste of your time.