Desecration, Moral Boundaries, and the Movement of Law: The Case of Westboro Baptist Church

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Using participant observation, in-depth interviews, and legislative histories, we examine Westboro Baptist Church, a religious group infamous for homophobic rhetoric and funeral protests. Employing cultural and interactionist perspectives that focus on the semiotics of death, the sacred, and desecration, we outline how Westboro’s activities purposively violate deeply held signifiers of moral order through language, while simultaneously respecting extant laws of behavior. This strategy, in conjunction with the political profitability of opposing the group, explains why the group’s activism triggered extensive legal disputes and modifications at multiple levels of governance. Westboro’s actions and use of symbols—and those of others against the group—lay bare multiple threads in the sacred cultural fabric of American society.