The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the First Amendment protects the right of members of Westboro Baptist Church (Topeka, Kansas) to stage attention-getting, anti-gay protests outside military funerals.
The court voted 8-1 in favor of Westboro’s right to publicly protest at military funerals. The decision upheld an appeals court ruling that threw out a $5 million judgment to the father of a Marine killed in Iraq who sued church members after they picketed his son's funeral last year.
This contentious issue is painful and clearly creates immense emotional harm to grieving families. I saw the video documentary on Westboro Baptist Church last year. Their militant pastor is a nut case to put it mildly. I loathe who they are and what they do. I wish they would just go away, I really do. But wishing for this and legally ending their right to protest publicly underscores a powerful legal line that the Supreme Court rightly refused to wipe out in their ruling.
This final ruling comes nearly five months after an emotional argument before the court, which pitted the father, Albert Snyder, against seven religious picketers who demonstrated at the soldier's funeral with signs that read "God hates fags" and "You're going to hell." Though the Marine wasn't gay, the picketers say they were carrying God's message to condemn "sodomite enablers." It should be noted that these “members” of Westboro Baptist are almost all related to Rev. Fred Phelps, the pastor/dictator of this little ingrown, fundamentalist congregation.
In the case before the court the church members had traveled with their pastor, Fred Phelps, to Maryland to demonstrate at the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who died in Iraq. They have previously picketed at hundreds of other military funerals in recent years, spreading a horribly unbiblical message that the casualties of war are God's punishment for society tolerating, and even embracing, homosexuality. So much for the love of one’s neighbors!
NPR reported on Wednesday: “In arguments made before the court last October, Snyder's lawyer, Sean Summers, told the justices that "if context ever matters, it matters at a funeral." But some justices pointed out that the picketers had obeyed all police instructions and stood 1,000 feet away from the church. Moreover, they noted that part of Snyder's emotional distress claim involved a derogatory Internet posting that he came across a month after the funeral” (italics mine).
"Suppose there had been no funeral protest, just the Internet posting," asked Justice Antonin Scalia. "Would you still have had a claim for damages?"
Summers answered yes, because of the "personal, targeted epithets directed at the Snyder family."
Moreover, Summers contended that just because the picketers were in compliance with the criminal law does not mean they are immune to lawsuits for civil damages.
Justice Stephen Breyer noted, and this is truly important to the case I believe, that Snyder had not seen the picketers' signs at the funeral, that he only saw the signs when he viewed TV coverage afterward. NPR again adds: “So, the justice asked, where do we draw the line on when you can sue for damages, and when you can't? It was a refrain heard repeatedly throughout the argument.”
Summers repeatedly contended that the private, targeted nature of the speech is what makes it unprotected by the First Amendment. If this is true then the US is headed in the wrong direction Constitutionally. And, sad as it might seem to grieving families, the country must protect speech in this context or we are moving away from one of our most basic freedoms.
But Chief Justice John Roberts wondered obliquely whether it was the content of the speech that was objectionable. "So you have no objection to a sign that said get out of Iraq?" Summers replied that he indeed would have no objection to such signs carried by picketers at a funeral.
Justice Scalia pounced on that answer, observing, "So the intrusion upon the privacy of the funeral isn't really what you are complaining about."
I decry the signs and message of Westboro Baptist Church with every fiber of my being. I also believe we must protect public protests and free speech or we will begin to walk down a slippery slope that will remove one of our most cherished freedoms as Americans. While the people of Egypt seek openness to protest and political freedom let us not forget our freedom and the price that was paid to attain it. The Supreme Court ruled in a way that is consistent with intent of the framers and with the right for modern public protest. For this we should all be grateful.