The Westboro Baptist Church is notorious for picketing things like funerals and they generate a lot of attention by doing so. A common trend in discussions about the church goes something like:

Someone should just beat all of them up

No, don't! They'll sue you. They get most of their money from suing people that try to hurt them!

The gist is that a significant portion of their organization are lawyers and they are consistently trolling people in an attempt to provoke an action that they can then sue over.

Is this even close to reality? Does Westboro Baptist Church engage in a significant number of lawsuits over incidents at their activities?

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    PS) If necessary I can dig up a few example claims. They tend to be fairly common so I didn't bother posting a link directly to any particular one. – MrHen Aug 22 '14 at 21:34
  • The funding section of the linked wikipedia page seems to imply that WBC's income is a combination of donations from its congregation and lawsuits/legal fees. – Brian S Aug 22 '14 at 21:42
  • They may become engaged in lawsuits due to their activities. Like, say, when someone else sues them. Since paying the winner's legal fees can be part of reparations in some cases, if the lawyers for the WBC win and then donate their fees to the church.... – Clockwork-Muse Aug 24 '14 at 11:14
  • It should be noted that if a person were to "just beat all of them up," WBC most likely would sue and win, and such a suit could hardly be considered frivolous. – Reinstate Monica -- notmaynard May 21 '18 at 14:34

There is absolutely no reason to believe there is any amount of truth to this.

First off, several former members of Westboro with nothing to gain or lose have publicly said that this isn't true:

A lot of you guys want to know if it's true that the objective of the church is to piss people off to the point of violence, sue, and gain profit. the answer is no. :)

  • Zach Phelps-Roper, former WBC member, from his Reddit AMA last month

It is my belief that they actually believe what they preach. They have concocted such an elaborate doctrine and give no opportunity for the members to question it in their controlled environment.

  • Laura Drain, former WBC member in response to a question about this myth, in her Reddit AMA from last year.

We have not profited in any lawsuits. In fact, we lose - duh! You think anyone is going to willingly repay us the money they took from us when they drag us into court? Do you think a judge is going to award us monies?

In addition to these quotes several people have looked into the myth and have turned up nothing. While absence of evidence isn't always enough to disprove something, the very nature of this myth requires an abundance of evidence. Trials are public record, even non-disclosed settlements are on record (although their text is not). Any legal filing would be easily uncovered and explored. Yet every single person who has chased after this comes up with nothing that could explain any significant sum of money.

Several years ago, The Stanford Review explored this claim and, as everyone else before them, came up empty.

I personally figure this myth to be a little bit of wishful thinking. For whatever reason, people consider the motivation of pure greed to be a little more tolerable than pure, unadulterated hate. Unfortunately, there simply is no reason to believe that this is anything but a myth.

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  • This effectively addresses the myth in my mind. I would be interested to learn where the myth started. In any case, anyone who has more links for the several people who have looked into this, please add them to the post. Thanks! – MrHen Aug 25 '14 at 15:11
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    I don't like this answer. How are statements from WBC members valid evidence? – Sklivvz Aug 25 '14 at 20:21
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    Well, considering there is precisely zero evidence to contradict them, I'd say it's pretty valid. And they aren't the only thing I listed there. The biggest problem this myth has is that there is literally nothing to support it. The positive evidence refuting it may not be ironclad, but coupled with the lack of evidence proving it, the case is definitively closed. Again, we're talking about American court cases here, which are public record and easily found. But those records don't exist. Because this is a myth. – Pete H. Aug 26 '14 at 14:58

The conclusions are pretty obvious from this:

In 1964, Fred founded Phelps-Chartered, a law firm that has come to represent the church in its civil suits. All five of the firms' attorneys are his children. The Kansas Supreme Court disbarred Phelps in 1979, stating that Phelps showed "little regard for the ethics of his profession."

-Source: SPLC

The SPLC is a very accomplished, famous, widely respected organization.

The protests are in themselves a source of some income, according to Potok. Over the years the Phelpses have filed lawsuits against communities that try to stop them from demonstrating.

"And as a general matter they have won," he says. "They know their First Amendment rights very well, and they've been very good at defending them."

When they win, they often receive tens of thousands of dollars in court fees. And their winning streak is likely to continue, now that the Supreme Court has decided that Westboro's right to free speech trumps the right of families to bury their loved ones undisturbed.


More on this Business Insider Article

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.

-The reviled Westboro Baptist Church makes a ton of money by suing communities that don't let them protest

Does evidence like this add up to conclusive proof that the majority of the groups costs are covered by litigation? No. But it's good enough for me to form an opinion.

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    You've found an article which simultaneously claims that the church spends $300k/year on travel, and that it made $170k from legal victories in the past 20 years. It would seem that to break even, it would need to be winning victories at a rate of 35 times what the article found evidence for. – Avery Jun 14 '16 at 11:14
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    Matthew, we expect answers to be polite. I've edited yours to be more in line with what we expect here. – Sklivvz Jun 14 '16 at 11:19
  • In addition to Avery's comments, your cited article doesn't support your claim that the WBC gets most of its funding from lawsuits. The article itself states 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. – March Ho Jun 14 '16 at 12:01
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    Just noting a few things: most importantly being awarded attorney fees is not necessarily a form of any income, after all, that's not going to pay much better than just being an attorney in the first place (do remember that fighting legal battles costs a lot of time). Whether you decide to donate the earned money to a church is up to the individual, so if you want to consider it actual income it needs to be more than just 'legal fees'. (cont.) – David Mulder Jun 14 '16 at 12:01
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    If they won $43,000 in legal fees, that means they spent $43,000 in legal fees to achieve that victory. So zero profit. – DJClayworth Jun 14 '16 at 13:44

There are two different claims being represented in this question, that the church

engage[s] in a significant number of lawsuits over incidents at their activities

and implicitly, that the church deliberately provokes people to beat up its members.

I don't know about the first claim, but the second claim is definitely not true, and could only be offered by someone who has never actually been beaten up.

In popular stories - for example in films and television dramas - people (or men, to be more precise) get up from their beatings with black eyes and bruising, perhaps a cracked rib, and painfully stumble through the next few days of their lives until they're feeling better.

In real life, people who have been beaten up even once are affected physically and psychologically, very significantly, and often devastatingly. They don't bounce back quickly; sometimes it's never, and they are often altered permanently by the experience.

Being beaten up - as the claims imply, receiving multiple beatings as part of a policy - is simply not a plausible way of raising an income, either for an individual or a group. That way lies crippling permanent physical debilitation and psychological trauma.

So if the claim really means being beaten up, as opposed to say, being shoved or prodded in the chest a bit, this is clearly not true.

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  • Welcome to Skeptics! Please provide some references to support your claims. I think you have misunderstood the claim: I don't think it suggests that they attempt to actually get physically assaulted. The rest is just your speculation, and isn't backed with any evidence. – Oddthinking Apr 21 '19 at 9:02
  • Just as I wouldn't expect to need to provide references for a claim that in real life people don't bounce the way they do in animated cartoons when falling from heights, so I wouldn't have expected to the same for the claim that a serious beating affects people significantly and sometimes devastatingly. However I grant that wholly implausible recoveries from beatings are depicted as the norm even in serious literature and films, so I will add some references regarding the consequences of beatings. (Also, I think the quoted claim does imply an attempt to provoke physical assault.) – Daniele Procida Apr 22 '19 at 7:07
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    The implication of the claim is a tricky one to resolve - it may come down to opinion. However, your claim isn't merely that being beaten up is dangerous. Your claim is that no-one would ever deliberately provoke someone into hitting them. That is easily disproven with examples of soccer hooligans and other examples of people deliberately provoking fights. So, rather than speculate how people might be motivated, please provide references that support your view. – Oddthinking Apr 22 '19 at 8:50
  • Oh, of course many people have deliberately provoked others into hitting them - people do it all the time, and it's not my point at all. My point is that getting deliberately beaten up is not possibly a sustainable way to make money, because the effects of being beaten up are in the long term rather more economically damaging than the benefits; an organisation attempting to go down that route would reduce itself to penury as well as to a pitiful condition of physical and mental health. – Daniele Procida Apr 22 '19 at 13:54
  • That is a lovely idea. It might be right. I am dubious. So, please shut me up by providing references to support it. – Oddthinking Apr 22 '19 at 14:01

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