Supreme Court Rules For Military Funeral Protesters

WASHINGTON (WJZ/AP) — Some may think their words are hateful but the highest court in the land decided a Kansas church has every right to protest U.S. soldiers’ funerals. 

Derek Valcourt explains the ruling ends a five-year battle for the father of a Maryland soldier.

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the First Amendment protects fundamentalist church members who mount anti-gay protests outside military funerals, despite the pain they cause grieving families.

The court voted 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s father who sued church members after they picketed his son’s funeral.

“My first thought was eight justices don’t have the common sense God gave a goat,” said Albert Snyder, who says there’s now no barrier for the church and its protesting.  “There’s nothing stopping Westboro from going to your daughter’s wedding.”

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the court. Justice Samuel Alito dissented.

Roberts said the First Amendment shields the funeral protesters, noting that they obeyed police directions and were 1,000 feet from the church.

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker,” Roberts said. “As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

Alito strongly disagreed. “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case,” he said.

“We found out today that we can no longer bury our dead in this country with dignity,” Snyder said.  “There’s still men and women in Afghanistan dying and this court has no problem with the government sending our children over to these wars, send them home in a body bag and not even have enough respect for that dead soldier to be buried peacefully.”

Matthew Snyder died in Iraq in 2006 and his body was returned to the United States for burial. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who have picketed military funerals for several years, decided to protest outside the Westminster, Md., church where his funeral was to be held.

The Rev. Fred Phelps and his family members who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church have picketed many military funerals in their quest to draw attention to their view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God’s punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

They showed up with their usual signs, including “Thank God for dead soldiers,” ”You’re Going to Hell,” ”God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” and one that combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, with a slur against gay men.

The church members drew counter-demonstrators, as well as media coverage and a heavy police presence to maintain order. The result was a spectacle that led to altering the route of the funeral procession.

Several weeks later, Albert Snyder was surfing the Internet for tributes to his son from other soldiers and strangers when he came upon a poem on the church’s website that attacked Matthew’s parents for the way they brought up their son.

Soon after, Snyder filed a lawsuit accusing the Phelpses of intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He won $11 million at trial, later reduced by a judge to $5 million.

“They don’t have a right to terrorize families and single families out, and that’s what they do,” said Al Snyder.

The federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., threw out the verdict and said the Constitution shielded the church members from liability.

Forty-eight states, 42 U.S. senators and veterans groups sided with Snyder, asking the court to shield funerals from the Phelps family’s “psychological terrorism.”

While distancing themselves from the church’s message, media organizations, including The Associated Press, urged the court to side with the Phelps family because of concerns that a victory for Snyder could erode speech rights.

“It is everybody’s First Amendment right to go to a public spot and speak on public issues,” said Margie Phelps, Westboro member/attorney. “Who in the world is not talking about these dying soldiers?”

Roberts described the court’s holding as narrow, and in a separate opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer suggested in other circumstances, governments would not be “powerless to provide private individuals with necessary protection.”

But in this case, Breyer said, it would be wrong to “punish Westboro for seeking to communicate its views on matters of public concern.”

Shortly after the verdict, Margie Phelps reacted to the decision in a news conference.

“Our reaction is ‘Thank God and praise his name.’ Our secondary reaction is nothing has changed except this. This case put a megaphone to the mouth of this little church. We are international,” Phelps said.  “Now we’re still back to the basic proposition: the soldiers are dying for the sins of this nation.  You’ve got to put away your sins, mourn your sins or this nation’s going down.  Shutting us up wasn’t going to change that.”

“It’s been a long five years and I’m ready to put this behind me and move on,” Snyder said.

Maryland has since passed a law prohibiting picketing at funerals. Had that law been passed sooner, perhaps the case may have turned out differently.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

More from Derek Valcourt
  • reality check


    • George Mouring

      I think this one is a no brainer. All they have to do is word the law to say they can do it, but not within one mile of the funeral itself. Constitution is upheld, and the families of these fallen hero’s don’t have to hear or see the trash protesting.

    • Linda Ruley

      I say that the next time a supreme court judge loses a family member, we organize a protest at THEIR funeral!!!

      • Devin

        I like the attitude but don’t do it to the son, just tear the judges life apart.

      • pigeon

        And we can do the same to those protesters when one of their family members die. I would have no problem packing my bags, grabbing a couple of my portable oxygen tanks and head south. Then again, no I wouldn’t – that would just put me on their level and I don’t think I could rise from being that low! I need to pray – hating is showing it’s ugly face and there’s no way Satan is going to get the best of me. God will handle this situation and them (protesters & justices).

      • CATHY

        I AGREE WITH LINDA,THE NEXT TIME A COURT PERSON OR ANY PUBLIC OFFICIAL LOOSES A LOVED ONE EVERY ONE GO AND PROTEST,Freedon of speech is good as long as it is not hurting anyonembut just because you are gay,black hispanic whatever does not give you the right to interup a funeral,where are your values,they just want to be on the news

    • Rick Marks

      If this Court ruling protects hateful speech as long as it’s on public land then that would apply to bullying as long as it’s on public land . Would that not be correct?
      A big can of worms has just been opened.

      Rick, Vietnam Vet

    • Mary Phyllis Davis

      I was there with Al as we buried Matthew. The Westboro Baptist Church was a disgrace. Had it not been for the Patriot Riders, things would have been much worse. The Supreme Court’s ruling is disgraceful. Not only have we lost Matthew, many of us have lost our faith in the legal system as a result of this ruling. God bless Al Snyder for being so brave in pursuing this. God bless our troops. My nephew is doing his fifth tour, and it sickens me to think that another family may have to endure what we saw and experienced that horrible day. Mary Phyllis Davis

      • Barbara W

        God Bless your nephew and thank you.

    • Mecca

      I am not for the war but for a church to protest outside of a funeral for a man or woman that has fought for and gave his or her life for our freedoms is a downright disrespectful thing to do. All that family wants to do is grieve for a loved one without having to deal with what I believe amounts to spitting on that soldiers grave. He gave his life for the freedom of speech and the right to do what those protestors are doing and they dont have the respect or sense God gave them to just leave those families alone, if it wasnt for him and those like him regardless of his sexuality they would not have the right to be doing what they are doing.Do they think that God would condone the disrespect and meaness of what they are doing and the unneccessary pain they are causing the families and loved ones of thefallen soldiers? They call themselves God’s children I call them devils advocates because it takes a mean and hateful person to intentionally inflict pain on someone that lost a child or family member to a senless war.

    • Donna Roberts

      I believe in freedom of speech, but I also believe that the Westboro Baptist Church is not worshipping the same God that I love and believe in. My God does not hate!

      • gwolf

        They are a sick evil bunch and God will take care of them.

    • Michael Ranere

      This makes me sick, literally sick. The freedom of speech was not meant fort his kind of abuse but to protect citizens who speak out against the government. I say we need to turn the tables on these people and torment them as much as they torment others. Any religion that supports this kind of hatred is wrong and needs to be removed from society.


      i cannot believe that our rights to freedom of speech has been scarred by people whom have no ability to care nor have enough respect to do thier act’s in private. it saddens me to know that in these times of need and economical down fall’s we are allowing people to hurt the one’s whom are apart of history we are a country in wich it’s name alone should speak louder than what it does UNITED STATES YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO TRUST LOVE AND CONQOUR AND WITH THAT HAVE RESPECT!

    • ..

      why cant they just leave these familes alone, like they arnt hurt enough.

    • sandy

      You know what is going to happen since the surpreme court does not want to help. Next funeral on a Miltary Funeral your going to have a Shoot Out. People are going to take action there self. You know you upset as it is. I think we are going to see some serious problems. This is very serious. Freedom of speech or whatever this needs to be stop you are very depressed when they send your child’s body back from a war in a body bag, Next family is going to snapp and I cannot say I blame them. If it was my child and they were out ther protesting, They better look out. My child was in the Miltary I just glad he is out now. I say send the protesters to Iraq or any other war zone let them see why they have there freedom,

    • Tammy

      Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Is not a “CHURCH”

      “They are a “CULT” ” GOD DOES NOT HATE”

    • Jamie

      Why don’t the soldier’s picket and demonstrate on every funeral that takes place at this church. I realize free speech but these soldiers are fighting for our freedom to live!

    • Cari

      I am sick to my stomach that they would allow these protests to go on, they are not demonstrating freedom of speech they are harrassing and defacing each soldier that has died to protect this country. Our god is a loving and forgiving God, not one that spouts hate and uglieness. This church should be ashamed and repeant. God gave us these special people to fight and defend our country and the rights that we have. I have many people in my family that have been or currently are soldiers and I am so proud of them. To the man that lost his son and this started with may God bless you and your family, may he help you get through this rough time. There are so many people behind you. To the church that is behind this I am going to ask God to forgive you and show you the right path because you are on the wrong one!!!!!

  • nick

    What we have here is a scary situation. The Supreme court is making law & changing law, something that the court was not intended to do. We have a serious breech of ethics here in that Justices Thomas, Alilto, Scalia & Roberts are on speaking tours collecting money fro big wig corporations who no doubt wield a lot of power & influence. They decided the outcome of the presidential election in 2000 by voting twice & it is a bad omen to have these men who have jobs for life to be out in public flouting. Most a conservatives & young so we can expect to see more influence by these justices in favor of big business. They should operate like Lady Justice & make decisions behind closed doors & never seen. This is an absolute abuse of power.

  • rusty buck

    this is what our county has come to ?when you can disrespect the dead?well if they ever show up at one of my family members funerals.i will be going to jail

    • urnotfunny

      100% agree with you Rusty. These morons have no human kindness in them.

    • Richard

      I agree. If it happens and I am there I will share a cell with you. Freedom of speech was established so that you could criticize the government without fear of reprecussions, not to taunt grieving families.

      I believe in “God Bless America” and I can assure you that the God that I pray too does not support this churches actions.

    • Babs

      Rusty buck

      I agree with you. Our country continues to go down the tank for allowing free speech to this group of hatred individuals. I truly feel bad for the family of this young man who died serving our country and to all the men and women in the arm services.

      • Reminder

        Babs… you didn’t seem to have a problem slamming gay folks in. your posts about gay marriage… just a reminder…

  • Mary C.

    No, Nick, the Supreme Court doesn’t make or change law. It only interprets the Constitution, perhaps in ways and situations that its framers didn’t foresee, since they could hardly have foreseen all the conditions that exist today. As for the tasteless and cruelly insensitive behavior of that organization that calls itself a church, what ever happened to local ordinances regarding disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace?

    • A 25 yr VET

      What happend to the thing about Church and State in the consitution????????

  • Herman Glimsher


    • Rick

      It’s called freedoom of speech you moron, you benefit from it as do I.

      • Olatunji

        What most people fail to fully understand is this: The US Military is not fighting to protect our freedoms at all. Quite the contrary. What the Military is fighting to do is invade sovereign Nations, unlawfully and to protect are “the right” of Multi-Nation Corporations to steal the natural resources of other sovereign Nations without properly compensating those Nations for those natural resources and annihilate the people of those respective Nations. This is what all of these invasions by the United States Military are all about. The unlawful taking of other Nations natural resources. It’s not about anything else. If you believe otherwise, you need to dig much deeper and do more research.

      • Bryant

        what about being able to yell fire in a movie theater. Obviously we “can’t” do that because of the negaitve public/safety reaction it will cause. I submit what these “church” folks are doing is akin to yelling fire in a movie theater causing a negative public reaction.

      • Adam

        Rick your a complete moron! I would consider these protesters and you Domestic terrorists! You are slandering the very individuals that give you all the rights that makes your day to day life much better than those who live were these soldiers are fighting. I say anyone that does not respect the very people past, present, and future that secure these rights in which everyone enjoys, you are all more than welcome to get the Hell out of our country! If you dont appreciate these rights, and honor the people that die to give them to you, you should not get to enjoy them.

      • Jennifer Warwick

        I understand that they have the right to Free Speech, but cant the members of our Military that are fighting and Dying to give us our Freedom, when they die can’t their familys mourn them in piece.

      • hvillage

        OLATUNJI: Your statement implies that the KIDS going over there are going with a full knowledge and understanding of SOME of the peripheral politics at the heart of this battle… no… these kids grew up with fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles and mentors who were in the gulf war…. these people were their heroes. This is about being a patriot and a hero and giving back to the country that these Kids believe have given them everything. Whether or not the politics of it are clear to them is irrelevant. I told my brother, I don’t agree with this fight you are going to fight, but I believe in you, and I’m proud of you for doing what you think is right… just come home healthy.

  • nkshummingbird

    Why dont the protesters go join the military and die and then we can protest there funerals. they should all be ashamed of themselves. usually people who talk religion are hippocritts.

  • susan

    I agree with you Rusty, This world is becoming scary to live in. Now it gives those radicals permission to do what ever they want at these funerals. And Mary you are right also. The police should be there doing there jobs and if it is military then the MP’s should be there. Funerals of any type should be honored and peaceful without worrying if radicals are going to show up. What goes around will come around. They will get theirs in the end.

  • Papi

    It’s a crying shame when a lunatic organization like Westboro Baptist “Chucrh” (what a misnomer) can win a case like this. I agree with Rusty Buck – if any of these idiots ever show up to picket around one of my loved ones they will wish they had stayed in the black hole they came from. That whole group ought to crawl back into that hole and pull the hole in behind them. It will serve Fred Phelps right (and his family) if pickets show up to say “good riddance” when his funeral takes place someday.

  • Jimmy

    This gets me sick.

    What can we do about this?

    Our soldiers are dying for us and we let this happen. Sometimes common sense rules and we should just do the right thing.

    Just another reason to get the hell out of this country, “Free speech my ass.” This is just crazy talk.

  • Call for Action...

    Not for extremism in any way, but this woman and her father (leaders of Westboro Baptist Church) need to be taken out…seriously. Cut off the head, the body dies.

    • Jane Q Public

      I believe that Anonymous has a plan… we’ll see.

  • Shawn

    He was only trying to bury his son. As a fomer Marine, this is a slap in the face to the Marine Corps and to all those who served. The law needs an amendment now. This is ridiculous!

  • warren

    That young marine died for the freedom of America–God have mercy on those that think otherwise.

    • Ben

      Or at least for cheaper gas prices…

      • urnotfunny

        another a-hole speaks.

  • from the shore

    We are victims of our own creation. We have spent so much time patting ourselves on the back talking about how this is a free country to the point where people do things just to try and prove how “free” they are. It is like flag burning. I don’t believe that those people hate the flag they are just daring you to stop them. Or how about people who tell the kids not to stand for the pledge. Or even idiots who think they can curse and carrying on in public and when they are arrested for disorderly conduct they want to cry freedom of speech.

  • Greg

    This is a travesty of justice. I completely understand our forefathers could not foresee today’s events. The elementary way to look at it is by putting yourself in their shoes and ask what would they do if they were here today. Freedom of speech will in no way hinder what what Westboro Baptist has to say if the court would have considered the family’s right to privacy?
    ” No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” From the fourth amendment.
    I interpret this two ways both in favor of the families being protested. First the amendment’s initial intent it to place this in the States’ hands. The Supreme Court of the United States has no business exercising power over the States. Second is that the decision for Westboro Baptist was obviously one sided focusing only on Westboro Baptist’s rights. No matter what is brought before the Justices in the way of evidence I for one would expect that a Justice would weigh both sides of the case.
    With this ruling I believe that our Supreme Court today denied this military family their rights of privilege and liberty to bury their son in peace. I believe that the fourth amendment was never considered by our Supreme Court justices when delivering such an absurd decision.
    Westboro Baptist has the right to say whatever they want and if our constitution defends their hateful means and blatant disregard for the mothers of our soldiers then our soldiers brother’s ought to have constitutional protection to whip their butts until they learn their manners.

    • Owings Mills

      The 4th Amendment is protection from illegal search and seizure. The 14th Amendment is equal protection.

      • Greg

        You are right. The original intent was to prevent King George from issuing general warrants as it was written in the Virginia Bill of Rights. The Fourth is much more than that. It also protects OUR privacy. The original intent of United States Bill of Rights is to protect us from excessive government power. In particular from excessive Federal Government power.
        The right of petition and assembly in the first amendment is specifically written to protect the citizen’s right when petitioning the government. The amendment never addressed petition and assembly between private citizens nor does it protect the people of Westboro Baptist by allowing them to invade anyone’s privacy.
        We can write volumes on this subject. The bottom line is that OUR Supreme Court does not have the capacity to recognize a family’s right to privacy when burying their son. Personally, I do not believe this is a constitutional matter to begin with. It is much bigger than that.
        The people of the Westboro Baptist Church clearly disrespect the rights and opinions of their fellow citizens. The State courts agree to the tune of $5mil.
        If you believe the Fourth does not protect the family’s right to privacy in this matter and we have to get all constitutional about this let us cite the Ninth Amendment. We all have the right to bury our own with dignity and respect in privacy.

  • Sheila Flanigan

    Aha then I can picket the WBC and call them whatever I want Call to mouths WBC has a faulty premise they are nutjobs seeking publisity for them selves. AND I’t time to leave the US
    the supreme ct has leashed hell on the innocent. whats next

  • from the shore

    I love America! Stories of courageous Patriotic acts make tear up with pride.However we have to look around sometime. We tell everyone that we are the greatest country in the world yet we depend on the middle east for energy, we borrow billions from China, we can’t shake race issues. We need humility.

  • Billiam

    The rage and frustration is completely understandable and I agree with those same comments, but the Supreme Court had no other choice but to rule that they have a freedom of speech, no matter how misguided or how appropriate it is, to voice what they feel is their opinion. To have done otherwise, would have created a firestorm hundreds of times worse that this. Each of us know that the military men and women put their life on the line each and every day they are in harm’s way; we know that. What we as citizens can do is take action into our own hands, and/or not give this stupid organization any more press and commentary. Put your thoughts, words and actions to good use by supporting our military each and every day. Don’t give Westboro the satisfaction of feeling as if they won – they will lose in the end.

    • Greg

      The Supreme Court completely misinterpreted the first amendment in this case, all but Alito who dissented in favor of the State’s decision. The first amendment does not address citizen’s free speech towards other citizens with regard to assembly and petition. The assemble and petition portion of the amendment are clearly written to protect our rights in order to allow we the citizens to assemble and petition the Federal Government. Period.
      Plus the Supreme Court of the United States took it upon themselves to slap the State Courts in the face in doing so … this is a travesty and infringes on the State’s sovereignty. We have not heard the end of this. Look for this ruling to be over turned.

  • Richard

    Sooner or later some Vet is going to plant an IED where the protestors are standing and this will be over.

    I hope I didnt give any veteran, who is grieving over lost combat buddies, any ideas. That would be horrible.

  • oscar arvelo

    The supreme court especially the minority hire Clarence pubic hair Thomas should all be fired. The court is making law & not the constitution as such. i think they’re reading to many comic books like former Prez Ronnie (is my hair in place ) Regan.

  • Rev John

    Rev John;
    If my son should come back in a body bag and them people show up I will spend the rest of my life in jail as well. I will be packen and as I drive by the window will come down and we will have alot of funerals . I am so mad over this Stupid people do stupid things and we have seen that there.

    • Oh no Rev

      Are you not the gay rev that has been posting. Hey Rev, don’t ask and don’t tell. You mean the boys you rape don’t you?

  • Wheres common sense when you need it

    Well lets see…..1000 feet = 334 yards. Heck a few good men could send them to see those dead Marines. Then lets see them talk that trash, just my opinion.

  • scott

    I am proud of the motocycle club that provides cover for some of the funerals. Thank you all. Remember not to let them get to you and do not provide any publicity to them. Lawsuits are how they make money.

  • Skye

    Freedom of speech is certainly something I believe in, but what they are doing is malicious and slanderous. Their rights to free speech ends where these families rights to bury their loved ones in peace begins. They are harassing the bereaved without thought for their loss and with the intent of causing emotional harm and distress. They are also making slanderous statements which as far as I am concerned is just beyond despicable for an organization that dares to use religion as it’s shield.

  • Kathryn

    If the media would stop giving the protesters publicity and showing them & their signs (that spread whatever their message is) I bet many of them would quit doing it. If they must report on an incident, simply call them generic “protesters” & leave it at that. Look at the picture with this story- it shows a sign and is spreading a message for free.

    The way it is now, protesters show up at a funeral and the media shows up too and millions of people see the protesters’ message via the TV, net or papers. These people are seeking publicity, if they don’t get it, they will most likely find a way other than disrupting funerals. The media needs to stop helping them spread whatever their agenda is!

  • Sean S

    WJZ: stop your unconstitutional censorship! I attempted to voice an opinion, but you would not allow it to post! It was nothing inappropriate! Just too politically incorrect for your Communist TV station!

    • Jane Q Public

      SEAN: it sucks when people want to take away your rights, doesn’t it.

    • JQP

      ….and by the way, this site is not public property, it belongs to WBAL (et al). If you don’t want to be censor red, then start your own blog and write whatever you want!

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