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.)