Although Americans remain divided on gun control in the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., hundreds of thousands of them are joining together to try to label the Westboro Baptist Church a hate group after its threats to picket the funerals of the shooting victims.
A petition to classify Westboro a legally defined hate group has become the most-signed petition ever on the "We the People
" website maintained by the White House. Since Dec. 14, more than 289,000 people have signed.
Westboro is notorious for picketing funerals of military service members, claiming they were killed as God's punishment for America's tolerance of gays and non-Christians. It has also picketed after other mass shootings, including the theater shooting over the summer in Aurora, Colo.
"This group has been recognized as a hate group by organizations, such as The Southern Poverty Law Center, and has repeatedly displayed the actions typical of hate groups. Their actions have been directed at many groups, including homosexuals, military, Jewish people and even other Christians," the petition says.
"They pose a threat to the welfare and treatment of others and will not improve without some form of imposed regulation."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization, has called the church "arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America."
A group of anonymous hackers took the church's official website down last week and published the names of the church members, along their personal information, including home addresses, emails, and phone numbers.
"We will not allow you to corrupt the minds of America with your seeds of hatred," said an unidentified voice in a video from the hackers. "We will not allow you to inspire aggression to the social factions which you deem inferior. We will render you obsolete. We will destroy you. We are coming."
Launched 15 months ago, "We the People" is a way for citizens to officially petition to the administration of President Barack Obama. According to the site, if a petition garners 25,000 signatures, officials will review it, send it to policy experts, and issue an official response.
So far, the Obama administration has not issued a statement on the Westboro petition.
There are two other petitions on "We the People" calling for the church’s tax-exempt status to be revoked, according to the Huffington Post
. Both of these petitions have also crossed the 25,000-signature threshold.
If the church is labeled a hate group, federal hate crime legislation requires the Department of Justice and the FBI to add the group to a comprehensive list with other organizations that are motivated by discrimination, according to the Daily Dot
. Once recognized as a hate group, its members face stiffer penalties if convicted of a crime.
Attempts by the media to reach the church for comment on the petition have been unsuccessful.
Previously, the Supreme Court ruled that Westboro is protected under the First Amendment to protest service members' funerals. However, in August Obama signed the Honoring America's Veterans Act, which prohibits military funeral protests closer than 300 feet to a funeral home and within two hours before or after a service.
So far, the Obama administration has responded to 87 petitions, including one on strengthening gun control laws in which Obama explains in a video that a set of concrete policies are in the works and will be proposed next month. There are currently 174 open petitions on the website.
"This time words must lead to action," Obama said at White House last Wednesday. "The fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing."
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