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The White House vs. Westboro Baptist Church

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Shirley Phelps-Roper of Westboro Baptist Church protests. Despite disagreeing with the church, the White House says it can't label Westboro a hate group. Shirley Phelps-Roper of Westboro Baptist Church protests. Despite disagreeing with the church, the White House says it can't label Westboro a hate group.
By WBC Signs @WBCsigns By WBC Signs @WBCsigns

(CNN) – The Obama administration will not label Westboro Baptist Church a hate group, saying it's not the government's practice to apply the designation.

More than 367,000 petitioners had called on the White House to "Legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group." For months the Westboro petition was the top petition on the White House's "We The People" website.

Four related petitions, including one calling for the Internal Revenue Service to revoke Westboro's tax exemption, also garnered more than 300,000 signatures.

A White House official, speaking on background, told CNN that petitions that cross the threshold of 100,000 signatures are reviewed by policy staff and receive a response.

On Tuesday, the White House posted its response to the Westboro petitions.

Officially, the response to the requested hate group designation was "no comment."

"As a matter of practice, the federal government doesn't maintain a list of hate groups," the White House said.

Instead, labeling hate groups is the job of private groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, the White House said.

But the administration did comment on other aspects of the petitions, agreeing that protesting at military funerals - one of Westboro's favorite practices - is "reprehensible." An animated map posted online shows what the White House says is opposition to the church spreading across the country.

"We agree that practices such as protesting at the funerals of men and women who died in service to this country and preventing their families from mourning peacefully are reprehensible - a point that President Obama has made for years," the White House said.

In response to Westboro, Congress and Obama enacted a law in 2012 restricting protesters' time at, and proximity to, military funerals. The law followed a 2011 Supreme Court decision upholding Westboro's free speech rights to protest at funerals.

Led by its pastor, Fred Phelps, Westboro says soldiers' deaths are part of God's punishment on the United States for "the sin of homosexuality."

Members have traveled the country shouting at grieving families at funerals and displaying such signs as "Thank God for dead soldiers," "God blew up the troops" and "AIDS cures fags."

Westboro Baptist Church is not affiliated with a broader Baptist denomination. The autonomous church has 50 members, many of whom are members of the Phelps family.  The church says they have picketed more than 50,000 events.

A GIF map created by the White House highlights the ZIP codes of the people who signed the anti-Westboro petitions.  

The map shows heavy concentration of signers in Kansas and Connecticut, "two places that have unique insight into the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church," the White House said. The church is based in Topeka, Kansas. As for Connecticut, the Obama administration suggests the anti-Westboro animus stems from the church's threats to protest the funerals of students killed in December's Sandy Hook School shooting.

Gif Created on Make A Gif

Westboro responded to the petition on social media.

"About to swoon with glee! @whitehouse @barackobama telling the world about @WBCSays preachments!" they wrote, adding a picture of the president with horns and the title "AntiChrist Obama."

CNN's Bill Mears and Daniel Burke contributed to this report.

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