Appeals Court: Westboro Picketing Not Religious Activity

Kansas Court of Appeals upheld the revocation of tax exempt status for a Ford F-150 owned by the Westboro Baptist Church after determining that its picketing activities were significantly composed of "political activities and secular philosophy."

In its ruling, the court cited a previous Supreme Court decision, Trustees of The United Methodist Church v. Cogswell, to address that the building is used "solely and exclusively" for religious activities and therefore manitains its tax exempt status. Read the decision

Cogswell also established the definition of religion used by the State Board of Tax Appeals when determining whether the Church's 2002 Ford F-150 was exempt. In its ruling the Supreme Court defined religion as "being an apprehension, awareness, or conviction of the existance of a supreme being controlling one's destiny. The term "religion" has a reverence of one's views if his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and characterm and of obedience to his will."

Westboro did not dispute the Board's conclusion that the truck was used "exclusively, actually, and regularly to facilitate [Westboro Baptist Church]'s picketing activities by transporting church members and signs."

The board admitted that the beliefs expressed while picketing were the deeply held religious views of the protesters, but had reservations as to whether it served "an exclusively religious purpose."

The board reviewed over 600 signs submitted by the church and found a "larger number made no reference to their doctrine or anything remotely religious." It added that 260 of the signs "simply labeled public figures and institutions with terms such as "fag," "dyke," "whore," "pervert," or Nazi."

The board finally ruled that the signs conveyed no religious message, despite the church members' belief they do. Since the church could not prove that the truck was only used to transport signs with religious messages to street side locations, its tax exempt status was revoked.

Westboro's additionally claimed that the ruling violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by preventing their free exercise of religion and creating excessive government entanglement into religion.

The church failed to prove to the court though that "without the exemption its ability to observe a central religious practice will be foreclosed," so a free exercise claim was unsustainable. As far as entanglement, the court ruled that the government has the right to make limited inquiries about the truck due to its interest in collecting taxes.

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