The 250k signature petition, the largest online White House petition of all time, comes in the wake an announcement by Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church's spokesperson, that members would picket the funerals of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 20 children. Anger toward the Westboro Baptists has reached new heights after this promise, and the hacktivist group known as Anonymous has declared "war" on them. The Petitioners argue that the group is not a church because not only is their message detestable, but the members are comprised almost entirely if not entirely of the family of founder, Fred Phelps. Many hope that classification as a hate group will also lead to the WBC losing their tax exempt status shared by all incorporated religions under the 501(c)(3) provision. The only way the latter can occur is if the church directly advocates for a political agenda. But do the Westboro Baptists meet the requirements for this classification and should they lose their exemption?
The WBC is not the first church to call homosexuality a sin. They are not the first to blame homosexuality for catastrophic events. Jerry Falwell famously blamed "the gays" for 9/11 while on the 700 Club with Pat Robertson. They are not even the first church to indirectly advocate for a political agenda. What sets the Westboro Baptists apart is their celebration of violence. Indeed it is fair to say they revel in it. However, are they a hate group in the same way the KKK is a hate group? Not necessarily. The members do not call for violence against homosexuals, nor do they commit acts of violence. Their position that homosexuality is evil is no different from those who claim "sanctity of marriage" is threatened by gay marriage, though their methods are more disagreeable. What's more they do not directly advocate for a political agenda.
This is precisely why we have our First Amendment: to protect unpopular speech. Free speech is not absolute but the court has already ruled that the WBC's speech is protected. While Americans do not like that a group would celebrate violence towards children, they are constitutionally bound to accept it. Once we begin labeling churches we disagree with as "hate groups" and start taking away their tax exempt status where does it end?