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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.