Church finances are made public

Westboro assets fall far short of award

Sun Special Report

November 15, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN REPORTER

Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas-based anti-gay group, and three of its members have a tiny fraction of the nearly $11 million they were ordered by a Baltimore jury last month to pay for their protest at a Marine's funeral in Westminster, according to detailed financial papers unveiled by a federal judge yesterday.

Eight pages of documents submitted in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by the church and three of its members - and made public at The Sun's request - reveal they have a net worth of almost $1 million but do not fully explain how the church is able to fund its picketing near military burials across the country.

Church leaders, including its founder, Fred W. Phelps Sr., contend the jury did not take into account their net worth when it imposed an award of more than 10 times their financial holdings. But lawyers for the Marine's father countered that church members lied in their financial statements submitted to the court.

The church's balance sheets will now take center stage as the judge decides how much, if any, of the award Westboro should pay.

Church members filed papers late last week with U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett to have him strike down the $10.9 million award as unconstitutional. Alternatively, Phelps and his daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps-Davis, asked the judge to eliminate the award as unjust or, at a minimum, to reduce the amount.

"The amount of the verdict reflects that it is the product of extreme passion and prejudice," the Phelps daughters, who were sued individually in the case, wrote in recently filed court papers.

Lawyers for the Marine's father plan to contest all of those issues. They say they believe the church should be ordered to pay the award immediately or post a bond to secure the judgment during the appeals process. They added that they have evidence produced during discovery for the trial that Westboro members did not tell the truth about their assets.

"They lied in their financial disclosures," Sean Summers, an attorney for plaintiff Albert Snyder of York, Pa., said yesterday.

Summers said the earlier paperwork filed in the case by Westboro representatives did not reveal any credit card debt or mortgage payments. The documents made public yesterday show $105,984 in liabilities, including $19,288 in current debt and an $86,696 mortgage due.

Also, Summers said that Phelps-Davis initially stated in court depositions that she was the sole owner of her $146,600 home. But in her filings unsealed yesterday, she said her husband is entitled to half of the property.

Snyder's attorneys have until Dec. 3 to respond to the church's motion. Summers said he expected that the judge would not hold a hearing on the issue but rather issue a written opinion based on the filings submitted by each side.

Late last month, a jury awarded the father of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder $10.9 million for enduring emotional distress and having his privacy invaded by Westboro members waving anti-gay signs at the Marine's funeral in March 2006.

Church members believe soldiers are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as punishment for what they say is the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. They argued during the trial that their protests should be allowed under the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion.

Several leading constitutional scholars believe that Westboro has a good chance of overturning the verdict on appeal based on First Amendment protections.

Yesterday, one legal expert also described the $10.9 million award as too high and likely to be reduced by the presiding judge.

"A multimillion-dollar award for emotional distress would not be warranted for this kind of thing," said John T. Nockleby, a professor and director of the civil justice program at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "And the judge would almost certainly find ways and reasons for reducing it."

Any award, he said, must demonstrate a proportional relationship between the amount of the award and the assets of the defendants who are responsible for payment. The idea is to inflict punishment based on how much it will hurt someone financially, he added.

"The Supreme Court has bracketed how much can be awarded. It's has to be proportionate. You can't willy-nilly award $100 million," Nockleby said. "The court has suggested an award of more than 10 times, except in unusual situations, would be out of line."

Church members also say in court filings that the $2.9 million in compensatory damages should be limited under Maryland law at $350,000 for noneconomic damages. Summers responded that Westboro is wrong because the limit applies only to a negligence award often covered by insurance - not the kind of intentional tort award in this case.

Known for carrying signs that read "Thank God for dead soldiers," Westboro listed $442,800 in real estate holdings, an $86,696 mortgage and about $50,000 in personal property and cash in the court papers made public yesterday.

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