The Supreme Court ruled decisively Wednesday that a fringe anti-gay group has a constitutionally protected right to stage hateful protests at the funerals of dead servicemen, saying “such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.”
In one of the year’s most closely watched cases, the Supreme Court in an 8-1 decision upheld a lower-court ruling to throw out a multimillion-dollar judgment that the father of a dead U.S. Marine from Maryland had won against the Westboro Baptist Church.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., in writing the majority opinion, noted that “speech is powerful” and can “inflict great pain.”
“On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker,” the chief justice wrote. “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.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. rebuked the majority and wrote in a blistering dissent that “our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”
Justice Alito wrote that Westboro Baptist’s attacks “make no contribution to public debate” and “allowing family members to have a few hours of peace without harassment does not undermine public debate.”
Westboro Baptist’s “outrageous conduct caused the petitioner great injury, and the court now compounds that injury by depriving the petitioner of a judgment that acknowledges the wrong he suffered,” Justice Alito wrote.
“In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims like the petitioner.”
Bonnie Carroll, founder and chairwoman of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, which provides support to those who lose family members who served in the military, said the ruling “upheld the rights of a radical fringe group to continue to harass the surviving families of our fallen military when they hold funerals for their loved ones.”
“Few Americans understand or are asked to endure what surviving families of our fallen military go through when planning a funeral,” Ms. Carroll said. “Today’s Supreme Court ruling means that the surviving families of our fallen military will continue to be harassed by this radical fringe organization.”
Margie J. Phelps, a leader of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., told reporters there the congregation intended to “quadruple” the number of its funeral protests as a result of the Supreme Court ruling.
“We are trying to warn you to flee the wrath of God, flee the wrath of destruction. What would be more kind than that?” said Ms. Phelps, daughter of the church’s leader, the Rev. Fred W. Phelps, and legal counsel for the group. “We have not slowed down, and we will not.”
Members of Westboro Baptist Church protested at the 2006 funeral Mass of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder and carried signs with anti-gay, anti-military and anti-Catholic messages, such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Priests Rape Boys.”
The Topeka church, which has fewer than 100 members, most of whom are related to Mr. Phelps, has staged about 600 similar protests at military funerals. The group believes misfortune and tragedies suffered by Americans are God’s punishment for a nation that is too tolerant of homosexuality.
Albert Snyder sued after his son’s funeral, accusing the group of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Mr. Snyder said the protests caused severe depression, exacerbated other health problems and left him unable to separate thoughts of his dead son from Westboro Baptist’s picketing.