It takes a lot to get most of us to give a Tinker’s damn for the homophobic extremists at the Westboro Baptist Church. However, the people may be close of doing just that. Citizens are passing around petitions to have the church declared a hate group and strip it of its tax exempt status. This type of political movement targeting an unpopular vote raises all types of alarms for civil libertarians. Declaring certain groups as “hate groups” by popular demand smacks of majoritarian dominance. It also reaffirms the concerns, which I have written about previously, that hate laws are increasingly being used to stifle free speech. It is equally troubling to find the petition on the White House website.
Almost twenty thousand people have signed the petitions demanding the designation of the Church. The church left a signature message on its machine: “We will not allow you to corrupt the minds of America with your seeks of hatred. We will not allow you to inspire aggression to the social faction which you deem inferior. We will render you obsolete. We will destroy you. We are coming.”
The petition on the White House site states:
“The members of this hate group make a practice of targeting funerals to make their case, routinely inflicting further pain and anguish onto the mourning families of deceased soldiers and, even worse, the victims of tragic crimes. They hold signs thanking God and celebrating the deaths of these people. They wave these signs in the faces of the families.”
Is that the standard for stripping away the status of unpopular groups? Holding up obnoxious signs and celebrating the death of people? There are an array of different groups who protest people who symbolize or represent an opposing view or lifestyle. Westboro is not accused of taking violent action and generally complies with local police instructions on where they can protest. The concern is that by defining an opposing view as “hateful” the majority can now punish unpopular views and individuals as part of a non-discrimination policy. Indeed, such actions in stifling speech are often defended as fostering speech — a free speech version of destroying a village to save it.
Anti-gay organizations have lost their 501(C)(3) status in the past but due to their failure to file correct forms as in the case of Americans for the Truth About Homosexuality (AFTAH).
The stripping of Westboro of tax exempt status would in my view place us on a slippery slope of regulating speech. For that reason, I have previously objected (here and here) to IRS rules that allow the termination of tax exempt status based on discriminatory practices of religious organizations like the Bob Jones University case.
What do you think?