- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2007

BALTIMORE (AP) — The father of a fallen Marine was awarded nearly $11 million yesterday by a jury that found leaders of a fundamentalist Kansas church had invaded the family’s privacy and inflicted emotional distress when they picketed the Marine’s funeral.

The jury first awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages. It returned later in the afternoon with its decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress to the Marine’s father, Albert Snyder of York, Pa.

Mr. Snyder sued Westboro Baptist Church members who staged a demonstration at the March 2006 funeral at St. John’s Catholic Church in Westminster, Md., of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq.

Church members routinely picket funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, carrying such signs as “Thank God for dead soldiers.” The church members testified they are following their religious beliefs by spreading the message that the deaths of soldiers are due to the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

The defense said it planned to appeal, and one of the church’s leaders said the members would continue their pickets of military funerals.

A number of states have passed laws regarding funeral protests, and Congress has passed a law prohibiting such protests at federal cemeteries, but the Maryland lawsuit is thought to be the first filed by the family of a fallen serviceman.

Mr. Snyder’s suit named the church; its founder, the Rev. Fred Phelps; and his two daughters Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebecca Phelps-Davis. The jury began deliberating Tuesday after two days of testimony.

The York, Pa., man said the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event.

The defense argued in closing statements Tuesday that the burial was a public event and that even abhorrent points of view are protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion.

The judge said the church’s financial statements, sealed earlier, could be released to the plaintiffs.

Earlier, church members staged a demonstration outside the federal courthouse, which is located on a busy thoroughfare a few blocks west of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, while passing motorists honked and shouted insults.

Mr. Phelps held a sign reading “God is your enemy,” while Mrs. Phelps-Roper stood on an American flag carrying a sign that said God also hates those who enable homosexuals. Members of the group sang “God Hates America,” to the tune of “God Bless America.”

Mr. Snyder sobbed when he heard the verdict while members of the church greeted the news with tight-lipped smiles.

In his closing arguments during the punitive damages phase, Mr. Snyder’s attorney, Craig Trebilcock, described church members as bullies who “seek out those among us who are at the weakest point in our lives.”

“That’s why they’ve gotten away with it until this point,” he said, adding that grieving families were too weak to fight back “until this man.”

Defense attorney Jonathan Katz reminded jurors that punitive damages are designed to deter future conduct, but not bankrupt or financially destroy.

He said the assets of the church, which has about 75 members, and the three defendants are less than $1 million, mainly in homes, cars and retirement accounts.

In his rebuttal, Mr. Trebilcock said it was up to jurors to decide the truthfulness of the financial documents, noting that they show Mrs. Phelps-Davis, a practicing lawyer, has $306 in the bank.

Mr. Trebilcock pointed to testimony by the defendants showing how much they traveled to spread their message.

“Rebecca Phelps has $306? She must be using Priceline.com. It doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

He urged jurors to determine an amount “that says ‘Don’t do this in Maryland again. Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again.’ ”

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