BALTIMORE | A federal judge has issued liens against a fundamentalist Kansas church and ordered two of its members to post cash bonds while they appeal a $5 million judgment resulting from the church’s protest at a military funeral.
The Westboro Baptist Church has filed a motion seeking to stay last November’s verdict, in which a jury found that the Topeka-based church intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon Albert Snyder of York, Pa. Snyder’s son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, 20, was killed in Iraq in March 2006.
The church frequently pickets military funerals, arguing that the deaths of U.S. troops overseas are part of God’s punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality. Since the verdict, the church has protested at other high-profile funerals in the Baltimore area, claiming that “God hates Baltimore.”
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett placed a lien on the properties of the church and its founder, Fred W. Phelps Sr., and ordered two of Phelps’ daughters to post cash bonds of $125,000 and $100,000 within 30 days.
The church property was appraised recently at $442,800. Bennett also placed a lien on a $232,900 office building owned by Phelps and his wife that the family law firm uses. The liens mean that no new mortgages can be taken out on the properties, and no money can be borrowed against the equity in them.
Bennett noted that it would require “extraordinary circumstances” for the church to avoid posting a portion of the judgment.
Phelps’ daughters, Shirley L. Phelps-Roper and Rebekah A. Phelps-Davis, have argued that they and the church cannot afford to pay the $5 million judgment, which Bennett reduced from an initial jury award of $10.9 million.
Sean E. Summers, an attorney for Snyder, suggested that the church was not being forthcoming about its finances, questioning how its members can afford to travel around the country when documents turned over to the court show that Phelps-Davis and Phelps-Roper have just a few hundred dollars in their checking accounts.
Phelps-Davis and Phelps-Roper are both attorneys; Phelps-Davis earned about $55,000 last year, and Phelps-Roper made about $20,000, according to tax returns filed with the court.
“If you ordered any one of them here today, they probably couldn’t afford to come, but yet they travel the world,” Summers said. “There’s money somewhere.”
Summers said the judge’s order for the defendants to put up essentially all their assets was “as good as we could have expected.”
Phelps-Roper would not reveal her next legal move but hinted that it would be impossible to raise $125,000. Failing a reversal of the judge’s ruling on appeal, she said God will deliver her and her church.
“No worries, mate, it’s all well,” Phelps-Roper told The (Baltimore) Daily Record.