- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2008

RICHMOND | Protesters who carried signs with inflammatory messages including “You’re going to hell” outside the funeral of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq were expressing a constitutionally protected religious viewpoint, their attorney told a federal appeals court Tuesday.

Leaders of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church are appealing a Maryland jury’s decision to award the Marine’s father, Albert Snyder, $5 million in damages for emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

The 2006 funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md., was one of scores of military funerals that have been picketed by members of the Topeka, Kan.-based church, which says U.S. deaths in the Iraq war are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

“If you do not stop sinning, these soldiers will not stop dying,” church attorney Margie J. Phelps said in explaining the congregation’s viewpoint to a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Mr. Snyder’s attorney, Sean E. Summers, argued that the protesters were not entitled to First Amendment protection because their attacks were personal and did not address a public issue.



“When you show up at a funeral and tell someone their son is going to hell, that’s not a matter of public concern,” Mr. Summers said.

Westboro protesters also carry signs with slogans such as “Thank God for dead soldiers.” One of the signs at Cpl. Snyder’s funeral combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto with a slur against gay men.

“When you show up at a Marine’s funeral and say, ‘Semper Fi fags,’ that’s not about the Iraq war,” Mr. Summers said.

A jury in Baltimore last year agreed with Mr. Snyder’s claim that the protests intruded on what should have been a private ceremony and inflicted severe emotional distress. Jurors ordered the church and three of its leaders - founder Fred Phelps and his daughters Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebekah Phelps - to pay nearly $11 million in damages. A judge reduced the verdict to $5 million.

Church attorney Margie Phelps said protesters did not disrupt Cpl. Snyder’s funeral. She said they silently picketed on public land designated by authorities 1,000 feet from the church for about 45 minutes and left when the funeral began.

Mr. Summers acknowledged that his client did not see much of the protest that day but said other mourners did, and their accounts caused Mr. Snyder considerable stress over how his daughters would be affected. Mr. Snyder saw more of the protest in news reports.

Margie Phelps argued that military funerals are unlike civilian services because of news coverage about the soldiers’ deaths, including interviews with friends and family members. That largely negates the expectation of privacy, she suggested. Even so, she said, Cpl. Snyder’s funeral “went off beautifully and without a hitch.”

The appeals court usually takes several weeks to issue a ruling.

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