- Associated Press - Thursday, September 30, 2010

YORK, Pa. (AP) — One thing Al Snyder wants to make clear: His boy fought and died for freedom in Iraq, but not for the right of some “wackos” to spew hate at soldiers’ funerals under the protection of the Constitution.

“It’s an insult to myself, my family and the veterans to say this is what our military men and women died for,” Mr. Snyder says, barely concealing his anger.

Yet more than four years after the death of his only son, Matthew, Mr. Snyder is in the middle of a Supreme Court case that raises almost precisely that issue.

The court is set to decide whether members of a fundamentalist church in Kansas who picketed Matthew’s funeral with signs bearing anti-gay and anti-Catholic invective have a constitutional right to say what they want.


Or, in intruding on a private citizen’s funeral in a hurtful way, have the protesters crossed a line and given Mr. Snyder the right to collect millions of dollars for the emotional pain they caused?

Albert Snyder, 55, talks about his son, Matthew, a Marine who was killed in Iraq, and about the upcoming Supreme Court case that will focus on a lawsuit he filed against Rev. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church for protesting his son's funeral Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010, in York, Pa. The court is set to decide whether members of a fundamentalist church in Kansas who picketed Matthew's funeral with signs bearing anti-gay and anti-Catholic invective have a constitutional right to say what they want. (AP Photo/Ann Foster)
Albert Snyder, 55, talks about his son, Matthew, a Marine who was ... more >

The justices will hear arguments in the case next Wednesday.

The case is shaping up as a potentially important test of the First Amendment. “The difficulty in this case is that the speech occurs at the most personal and sensitive of times,” said Cliff Sloan, a First Amendment expert at the Skadden, Arps law firm and the former publisher of Slate magazine.

Margie Phelps, a daughter of the Rev. Fred Phelps, the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, and the lawyer representing her family members at the Supreme Court, said that if the justices reinstate the $5 million judgment to Mr. Snyder, anyone who says anything upsetting to a mourner “is subject to a crushing penalty.”

But Mr. Snyder said in an interview with the Associated Press that if he had the chance, he would tell the justices “that this isn’t a case of free speech. It’s case of harassment.”

Mr. Snyder’s nightmare began on a late winter night in 2006 when he flipped on the porch light and saw two uniformed Marines standing at the front door of his home in this small south central Pennsylvania city.

He knew right away that Matthew was dead, after just five weeks in Iraq.

He could accept his son’s death because Matthew always wanted to be a soldier.

But Mr. Snyder was not prepared for what came next.

Eleven hundred miles away, in Topeka, Kan., Mr. Phelps and other family members who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church decided that Mr. Snyder’s funeral at a Catholic church in Westminster, Md., would be their next stop.

Mr. Phelps and his small band of followers have picketed many military funerals in their quest to draw attention to their incendiary view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God’s punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

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