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Church Status Allows Funeral Protesters to Avoid Taxes

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A federal judge on Monday struck down Missouri laws targeting funeral protests like this 2006 protest by the Westboro Baptist Church at a marine's funeral in Maryland.AP

For more than a decade, members of Kansas' Westboro Baptist Church have seemed to thrive on the wrath of Americans, dominating the headlines with their provocative protests at funerals of U.S. soldiers and their in-your-face rhetoric aimed at gays and Jews.

Westboro has been accused of being a hate group, but one detail that has been largely overlooked is that, unlike most hate groups, this group is not required to pay taxes because of its status as a religious institution. 

Critics of Westboro argue that the church's activities cross the line, but watchdogs of hate groups say these protesters carefully and deliberately don't.

"They're very legally savvy," said Marilyn Mayo, co-director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. "They're familiar with the line of what is permissible within the law and what is not."

Founded by former civil rights attorney Fred Phelps, the group of some 80 followers are mostly members of Phelps' family and attorneys themselves, Mayo said.

Westboro has targeted hundreds of grieving families with its message that military deaths are the work of a wrathful god who is punishing the United States for tolerating homosexuality. Westboro also protests nonmilitary events, such as the 2007 funeral of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the deaths of 29 miners this month in West Virginia, which the group, showing up at the Charleston Capitol, argued was the hand of God at work.

The group first grabbed widespread attention in 1998, when members appeared outside the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student whose murder drew national attention.

In the past year, the group has been increasingly aiming its rhetoric at Jews, whom the protesters accuse of killing Jesus.

"It's called the First Amendment," Shirley Phelps-Roger, a spokeswoman for the church and daughter of Fred Phelps, told FoxNews.com when asked how Westboro has been able to keep doing what it's doing.

"We're only telling you what the Word says," she said.

Phelps-Roger, a former civil rights attorney, said the church is seeking for the nation to "hear the rod and he who has appointed it. If you would quit flipping off your God, He would remove his smiting rod off your back. We don't go forth with a strategy for publicity. We do what we've been doing for 19 years."

Some find it hard to see how such protesters could comprise a church, but their viewpoints, despite being anti-Semitic and anti-gay, are rooted in religion, Mayo said.

"They obviously take it to great extremes," she said, adding that it's so extreme, other churches have rejected any of the religious arguments they use to "justify their actions."

Topeka Mayor Bill Bunten told FoxNews.com that the group is an embarrassment to the city.

"To us, they've become sort of a road sign that says 'dip in the road,'" he said. "We don't notice them. We just completely ignore them."

"In some ways, they're disgusting," he added. "In other ways, they're pathetic. ... What I want people across the nation to know is they're a small group of people who we regret are in the community."

Bunten said the city once challenged the group's tax-exempt status and determined that the only thing it owned that could be taxed was its van. 

"They say they're a Baptist church, but anybody can say that," he said, asserting that one "can be a Baptist pretty easily."

Westboro is not affiliated with any Baptist conventions or associations.

The IRS declined to answer specific questions about Westboro but directed FoxNews.com to its tax guide for churches and religious organizations. To qualify for and maintain tax-exempt status, an organization, among other things, cannot engage in political campaigns, must operate "exclusively for religious, educational, scientific, or other charitable purposes," and its "purposes and activities may not be illegal or violate fundamental public policy."

Heidi Beirich, director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the center once sent a staff member to the church for a Sunday service as part of its investigation into the group. The staff member heard Phelps preach the same anti-gay message that the group spreads at its protests and on its websites.

"Whatever you say, this is Fred's religious belief," she said. "He believes it for God." 

Yet, she called Westboro "vile" and "the worst hate group in America."

And the church status of the group, she said, makes it "harder to recognize how vile it is."

"You can pretty much get away with anything as a tax-exempt group," she said.

Phelps-Rogers characterized the church's rhetoric as "perfect for this hour."

The Supreme Court did not say you cannot yell fire in a crowded theater, she said, explaining that the prohibition is, "you cannot yell fire in a crowded theater that's not on fire."

"This doomed American theater is on fire," she said. "This little church of the Lord Jesus Christ is yelling fire with every fiber of its being. That is permitted under the law."

Beirich said the group is not directly dangerous but can incite others to violence.

"This defamation is a bad thing," she said. "And if it takes hold of our culture, you can get hate crimes. There is a loose connection between rhetoric and outcomes. Luckily in the case of Westboro, I don't think anyone is listening to them."