- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court is entering an emotionally charged dispute between the grieving father of a Marine who died in Iraq and the anti-gay demonstrators who picket military funerals with inflammatory messages like: “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

The court agreed Monday to consider whether the protesters’ message, no matter how provocative or upsetting, is protected by the First Amendment or limited by the competing privacy and religious rights of the mourners.

The justices will hear an appeal from a Marine’s father to reinstate a $5 million verdict against the protesters after they picketed outside his son’s funeral in Maryland four years ago. Members of a Kansas-based church have picketed military funerals to spread their belief that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

The funeral-protest dispute was one of three cases the court said it would hear in the fall. The others involve whether parents can sue drug makers when children suffer serious side effects from vaccine and NASA’s background checks on contract employees. The government says the decision in the NASA case could throw into question the background checks routinely done on all federal government workers.

The protest lawsuit stemmed from picketing by members of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., outside the funeral for Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder in Westminster, Md. He died in March 2006 when his Humvee overturned.

The funeral was one of many that have been picketed by Westboro pastor Fred Phelps and other members of his church. One of the signs at the corporal’s funeral combined the U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, with a slur against gay men.

Other signs carried by church members read, “America Is Doomed,” “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “Priests Rape Boys” and “Thank God for IEDs,” a reference to the roadside bombs that have killed many U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The corporal’s father, Albert Snyder, sued Mr. Phelps, his daughters and the church and won a verdict of more than $11 million for emotional distress and invasion of privacy. The judge reduced the amount to $5 million, but a federal appeals court threw out the verdict altogether.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the signs contained “imaginative and hyperbolic rhetoric” protected by the First Amendment.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, a defendant in the lawsuit and one of Phelps’ daughters, said she is pleased the case is going to the Supreme Court. “We get to preach to the conscience of doomed America,” she said in an interview Monday. “I am so excited that I can’t tell you how good it is.”

In the vaccine case, parents, drug companies and the Obama administration all asked the court to decide whether vaccine makers can be sued in state court over injuries that allegedly result from vaccines.

All but one court has held that a 1986 law limits such lawsuits and instead directs parents to a special vaccine court. The law was intended, in part, to ensure a stable vaccine supply by shielding companies from most lawsuits.

The Georgia Supreme Court is thus far the only one that has ruled that families can sue in a vaccine case, and drug makers are eager for the U.S. high court to remove any uncertainty caused by the Georgia ruling.

The lawsuit at issue is about claims by parents in Pittsburgh who want to sue Wyeth over serious side effects their daughter, 6 months old at the time, allegedly suffered as a result of the company’s diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine.

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