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Supreme Court Upholds Westboro Baptist Church's Right to Military Funeral Protests

3 years ago
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The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that vitriolic anti-gay protests at military funerals are a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment.

Writing for the majority in an 8-1 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts declared that the Westboro Baptist Church, led by its founder, Fred Phelps, could not be held liable for money damages sought by the family of a slain Marine, Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, whose funeral was picketed by church members in 2006. Only Justice Samuel Alito, who had forcefully objected to the protests during oral argument in the case in October, dissented from the opinion.

The court declared that the protesters' controversial signs -- on placards that read "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11," "America is Doomed," "Thank God for IEDs" and "God Hates Fags," among others -- constituted lawful and peaceful commentary on political issues under First Amendment legal precedent.

Roberts wrote: "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. 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. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case."

The court ruled that the protesters stayed away from the memorial service, obeyed the constraints imposed upon them by local officials, and were barely seen by mourners as they drove to the service.

"Given that Westboro's speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern," Roberts wrote, "that speech is entitled to 'special protection' under the First Amendment" and "cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt."

The court thus affirmed a lower federal appeals court ruling that had tossed out the Snyders' lawsuit on similar grounds. Earlier, a federal trial judge had ruled in favor of the Snyder family, and against the Westboro Baptist Church.

In a strong dissent, Alito said that the court's decision allowed the Westboro church to "brutalize" the family at its most vulnerable moment. He wrote: "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case. . . In this case, respondents brutally attacked Matthew Snyder, and this attack, which was almost certain to inflict injury, was central to respondents' well-practiced strategy for attracting public attention."

The Phelps' family, which essentially constitutes the Westboro Baptist Church, immediately praised the ruling. Margie Phelps, who acted as attorney for her family, told the Associated Press: "The only surprise is that Justice Alito did not feel compelled to follow his oath. We read the law. We follow the law. The only way for a different ruling is to shred the
First Amendment."

In an interview with CBS Radio News after the decision was announced, Phelps said she would tell the Snyder family: "This was a fool's errand. It was un-American as anything you could have done. That boy is still dead. . . Now get down on your knees, mourn for your sins, repent and obey."
Filed Under: Religion, Law, Supreme Court

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tonycgi

Let me give you all a lesson of what could happen if you think this is about gay's in the miltary. Having retired when Mr. Obama took office, as a line officer(up thru the ranks), as many of my fellow line officers did. These people are the lowest of the lowest, but out 1st Amendent does not allow us to stop them. The way to counter them is to sheild them from the burial. Those of you you have not served in the military don't know what could happen to a gay person in th military, those of you who have know. I will not go into details, just remember in a fire fight, anything can happen. If there is a hell, I do hope the people who protest of Vet's find their way there, but don't confuse the issue.

March 02 2011 at 6:51 PM
emmett

From the Baptist Creed ; # 5. Individual soul liberty ...... Baptists hold that each individual is free to determine their own eternal destiny. With this freedom of choice also comes responsibility as each man will answer to God for their choice. The salvation of an individual is ultimately a choice they must make for themselves. ...... The choice the Phelps group has made clearly sends them on the road to eternal damnation. They have taken the entire Baptist religion on a train-wreck of biblical proportions. The only recourse available is to the indivual States to counter these radical scam-artists, to tighten the bounderies and restrict their disturbance levels .

March 02 2011 at 6:50 PM
willcorde

HOW ABOUT THANK GOD FOR DEAD BAPTIST ...ITS STILL MORALLY WRONG ,,,AND GOD IS A GOD OF LOVE AND FORGIVENESS

March 02 2011 at 6:43 PM +1
Shadow

WESTBORO CHURCH, READ YOUR BIBLE "LOVE ONE ANOTHER" AND IF THAT ISN'T ENOUGH "JUDGE NOT LEST YE BE JUDGED."

March 02 2011 at 6:43 PM +1
missmymind2353

I WONDER WHAT TH SUPREME COURT WOULD RULE IF THE SAME GROUP OF PEOPLE PROTESTED IN FRONT OF THE COURT WITH SIGNS THAT READ (THANK GOD FOR DEAD JUDGES)

March 02 2011 at 6:38 PM +2
Bill

No one knows God's will.

March 02 2011 at 6:37 PM
hatgasbill

If Churches want to play around in politics they should pay taxes.

March 02 2011 at 6:32 PM +6
hello andy

I have fought and will fight again for my country and it's citizens to be safe from outside threats. I do not and will not fight for some hate mongers so they have the right to protest at a service members funeral. I agree with these posts that people then have the right to protest the church group when they protest.
What this group is doing is in a roundabout way protesting homosexuals and their freedoms. I am not gay but I think that as Americans they too have the same rights that the rest of us have. Gay rights activist groups should sure the church group for hate crimes.

March 02 2011 at 6:30 PM
jsineno

I'm very sorry that the Supreme Court ruled the way it did. But with the root of the demonstrations being the military's acceptance of gays [not offically yet, but it's almost there] there is a silver lining. Since these demonstrations started, support of gays in this country has increased -- the vast majority of Americans deplore this form of hatred exhibited by Phelps and his group, and rightfully so. And as long as they continue to be allowed to demonstrate at these funerals, it can only further America's acceptance of the gay community as a whole.

March 02 2011 at 6:29 PM +1
Janice

Families who have lost a loved one who served in the military have the right to grieve in peace. Politics has no place at a funeral.

March 02 2011 at 6:27 PM +3

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