More than 260,000 people have signed a White House petition to designate the Westboro Baptist Church — notorious for picketing soldiers' funerals with signs reading "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" — as a hate group. The petition, the most popular so far to be submitted to the Obama administration's "We the People" site, came in response to the church's threat to picket funerals for the victims of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., which the church views as God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality. "Westboro will picket Sandy Hook Elementary School to sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment," tweeted church spokesman Shirley Phelps-Roger on Dec. 15. (It appears the group did not follow through on that vow.)
A petition needs only 25,000 signatures to require a response from the White House, which means Obama's team will have to consider whether the church's hateful rants qualify it as a hate group. Such a move would strip the church, which is largely composed of leader Fred Phelps' family, of its tax-exempt status, and could lead to more severe legal penalties if the group is ever convicted of breaking the law. Westboro has already been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other civil rights groups."Their actions have been directed at many groups, including homosexuals, military, Jewish people and even other Christians," according to the petition. "They pose a threat to the welfare and treatment of others and will not improve without some form of imposed regulation."
As if the massacre at Newtown wasn't enough of a nightmare, it's utterly loathsome to imagine throwing in a bunch of gay-bashers dancing on the graves of dead babies. But anti-gay sentiment is hardly new in America. And as WalkerBragman at DailyKos notes, Westboro is "not the first to blame homosexuality for catastrophic events. Jerry Falwell famously blamed 'the gays' for 9/11." Indeed, the Supreme Court has already ruled that Westboro's demonstrations are protected by the First Amendment, which prompted Congress to pass a law that requires protests to be held at least 300 feet away from military funerals.
So while it's refreshing to see a White House petition that isn't laughably ridiculous — like trying to deport CNN anchor Piers Morgan — it seems unlikely that the Obama administration will grant hate status to a group that, so far as anyone knows, hasn't threatened violence or committed any illegal acts.