Supreme Court looks at military funeral protests
They showed up with the 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, as Mr. Snyder surfed the Internet for tributes to Matthew from other soldiers and strangers, he came upon a poem on the church’s website that attacked Mr. Snyder and his ex-wife for the way they brought up Matthew.
That’s when he decided to take action and soon 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.
Then the federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., threw out the verdict and said the Constitution shielded the church members from liability.
The idea that the picketers’ rights might trump his own led Mr. Snyder to continue the lawsuit. “They want to use the First Amendment as both a sword and a shield and that’s not right,” he said.
The Supreme Court gave him some hope that, in deciding to hear the case, the justices might say that funerals are different.
Mr. Phelps and his followers do not limit themselves to funerals. They have been protesting for decades, about homosexuality, abortion, Catholics and Jews. The court is made up of six Catholics and three Jews.
The Phelpses have even picketed unlikely targets, college students and breast-cancer survivors, to call attention to their belief that God is angry with the United States.
When Chief Justice John Roberts appeared in Lawrence, Kan., in 2008, Westboro protesters were there as well.
Asked about free speech cases that day, Justice Roberts said, “It’s certainly the responsibility of the Supreme Court to uphold freedom of speech, even when it’s unpopular.”
The groups said that “to silence a fringe messenger because of the distastefulness of the message is antithetical to the First Amendment’s most basic precepts.”
Other groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, are not taking sides, but say the case is a poor one for making any broad pronouncements about the First Amendment that could inhibit religious expression. Some conservative groups are concerned that a ruling for Mr. Snyder could be used to limit anti-abortion protests.
On the other side, all the states, except Maine and Virginia, and veterans groups say that the court should stand behind state laws that limit funeral protests and recognize that mourners at a funeral have a right to be left alone.