Religious zealotry can be a profitable business if you know what you’re doing. Televangelists have been capitalizing on religion for decades by playing on the insecurities and fears of the people watching them on TV. They promise donors salvation if they are willing to part with their life savings to support the “ministry.” I know it sounds ludicrous, but one just has to look at the careers of Pat Robertson and his contemporaries to know that the formula works.
Recently, a new type of religious zealot has garnered increased attention in the media. The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas has made a name for itself by holding offensive protests at the funerals of slain servicemen and women as well as the funerals of the victims of anti-gay hate crimes. It’s estimated that it costs these zealots over $200,000 per year to travel across the country and stage protests. So how do they afford it? Well, it’s a quite simple formula, and you can find out how it’s accomplished below.
1. Be Extremely Obnoxious
The Westboro Baptist church is perhaps the most obnoxious and offensive organization in the United States. This has not only garnered them tons of media attention, but it’s made them flush with cash as well. The group first gained national attention for their slogan, “God hates fags.” The church members would go the funerals of people killed as a result of anti-gay violence and hold up signs with this slogan and many others that were just as offensive.
The first protest that brought the Westboro Baptists into the public consciousness took place in Laramie, Wyoming at the funeral of Matthew Shepard. Shepard had been robbed, pistol-whipped, tortured, tied to a fence and left to die. Shepard’s homosexuality was the sole motivation for the murder. Westboro Baptists not only protested the funeral, but they also brought their “God hates fags” signs to the trial of the two men accused of the murder as a show of support.
In recent years, the group has begun protesting the funerals of dead U.S. soldiers. In numerous instances, they have appeared at the funerals of servicemen and women killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars holding signs reading “thank God for dead soldiers.” Fred Phelps Sr., the now deceased patriarch of the church stated their motivation as "Our attitude toward what’s happening with the war is the Lord is punishing this evil nation for abandoning all moral imperatives that are worth a dime."
The group’s extremely obnoxious behavior has increased their public profile and contributed to what is perhaps their most significant source of income – lawsuits.
2. Sue Everybody
The Westboro Baptists are a litigious bunch. In fact, nearly everyone in the church is a lawyer. The founder, Fred Phelps was a lawyer until he was disbarred in 1979 for among other things, calling a witness a “slut” on the stand. Phelps had 13 children and almost all of them are members of the church and lawyers.
The group has perfected the art of suing towns for attempting to violate their freedom of speech by preventing them from staging offensive and insensitive protests. On numerous occasions, they have won six-figure settlements from municipalities that have attempted to bar them from protesting. This is all done under the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Award Act of 1976 which allows Federal courts to award attorney’s fees to winning parties in civil rights cases. The law was designed to help disenfranchised minorities, but the Westboro Baptists have skillfully manipulated it to serve their interests. Although they do not disclose how much they make from these lawsuits, experts estimate that they have collected millions of dollars in legal fee reimbursements over the years, and since they almost always represent themselves in these cases, the fees constitute unadulterated profits.
The group isn’t just suing cities; however, they also go after the individuals they offend. They take such incendiary actions in an attempt to get people to react violently. They are just waiting for someone to be so offended at one of their signs or chants that they take a swing at them so that they can then sue them for personal injury. Almost a weird form of ambulance chasing lawyer if you think about it.
3. Use the Constitution to Your Advantage
In October 2007, a federal jury in Baltimore, Maryland ordered Westboro Baptist Church members to pay almost $11 million in damages to the family of Matthew Snyder. Snyder was a Marine who was killed in Iraq in 2006, and the Westboro Baptists – never missing an opportunity to be distasteful -picketed his funeral holding signs stating, “Matt’s in hell,” and “Thank God for IEDs.”’ Albert Snyder, Matthew’s Father, brought charges against the group for violating his family’s right to privacy and intentionally inflicting emotional distress.
This was the first attempt to hold the group liable for their obscene activities at the funerals of fallen servicemen and women, and although it was initially successful, the ruling did not withstand the appeal process. The Westboro Baptists appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court and were awarded an 8-1 decision in favor of their right to protest. The court concluded that the previous ruling violated the group’s right to free speech under the First Amendment.
Being skilled lawyers, the members of the church knew how to use the law to their advantage. The Constitution allows you to say basically anything you want without facing financial or criminal repercussions, no matter how ignorant or indecent the statements may be.
4. Cling to Your Tax-Exempt Status
The Westboro Baptist Church saves a ton of money due to their tax-exempt status. Under Internal Revenue Code 26 U.S.C. 501 (c), all religious organizations are exempt from paying federal income tax as long as the majority of its activities are for religious purposes. In recent years, several petitions have challenged the group’s tax-exempt status claiming that they are not a religious organization but rather a political advocacy group.
The Westboro Baptists have smartly walked the fine line between religious advocacy and political advocacy, however, and have avoided losing the coveted status. They’ve accomplished this by stating positions on issues, but never directly endorsing or contributing to specific candidates or ballot issues. As long as they are saying “God hates fags” instead of “God hates fags, so you should elect John Doe,” the group’s tax-exempt status is safe. This is yet another instance of, the Westboro Baptists expertly using the system for their own financial gain.
5. Force Church Members to Tithe Ungodly Amounts of Money
Not all of the church’s money comes from ridiculous lawsuits. They also make a small fortune through forced tithing. To be a member of the church in good standing, you must give the church thirty percent of your annual income. The Westboro Baptist Church’s 70 members are primarily lawyers and doctors with significant annual salaries. Even if the membership averaged an annual salary of just $100,000, their combined contribution to the church would be $2.1 million per year. When you combine that with their profits from litigation, it creates a staggering yearly income on which they have to pay no federal income taxes.
It appears that the easiest way to make money being a religious zealot is to offend as many people as humanly possible, know the law inside and out, and force your members to give huge sums of money as a requirement for membership in your church. I really don’t know why other people aren’t doing this. It seems so easy. It’s utterly distasteful and abhorrent, but easy nonetheless.