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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, 2014 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, 2014 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.... Aug 24, 2014 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. May 21, 2018 at 14:34

2 Answers 2

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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, 2014 at 15:11
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    I don't like this answer. How are statements from WBC members valid evidence?
    – Sklivvz
    Aug 25, 2014 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, 2014 at 14:58
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Q:Does the Westboro Baptist Church get a significant amount of their funding from lawsuits?

A:What do NGOs and the press say? Here are some quotes.

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: The Southern Poverty Law Center

The SPLC is a very accomplished, famous, widely respected organization. Of Fred's 13 children, 4 are estranged per the SPLC, and 11 are lawyers, per CNN.

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.

-NPR

A Business Insider article with the relevant, informative title,
The reviled Westboro Baptist Church makes a ton of money by suing communities that don't let them protest (emphasis mine) also reported:

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 group has become proficient at filling its coffers through litigation ...


Soooo, litigation has been a significant revenue stream to the group. Does evidence like this show that *most* of the groups costs are covered by litigation? No. But that wasn't the original question. It [was][2] >Does the Westboro Baptist Church get a significant amount of funding from lawsuits?
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    – Oddthinking
    May 18 at 15:58

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