WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments Wednesday morning in a case involving Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church. The group claims its protest outside the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq is protected by the First Amendment.
The justices will consider whether Westboro's message is protected or limited by privacy and religious rights of mourners.
Court observers agree this is probably the most important and far-reaching case the court will hear this term. A decision is not expected in the case until next June.
It may be outrageous and outraging but it's still free speech, according to an editorial in the LA Times
Members of the fundamentalist church protest funerals of service members, contending the deaths are God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality. Westboro has also protested at the funerals of firefighters, rememberances for murder victims, outside concerts and other high-profile events.
The group is made up almost entirely of the Phelps family, led by founder Fred Phelps. It has about 75 members.
Albert Snyder sued the church, accusing it of inflicting emotional distress and invading his privacy when members protested outside the funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in 2006.
"They are very sick individuals," said Snyder. "It comes down to dignity. No one should be buried with what the Phelps did. Everyone deserves to be buried with dignity."
A jury awarded Snyder's family $2.9 million in compensatory damages, plus $8 million in punitive damages. The total damages were later reduced to $5 million. It was the nation's first civil suit against the church over the protests.
Albert Snyder testified he suffered severe physical and emotional distress, but church members argued their broader message was aimed at the unspecified actions of the military and those who serve in it.
A federal appeals court agreed, concluding the signs and shouts did not directly refer to the lance corporal, and were therefore protected speech on issues of national debate.
Fourteen organizations have filed related briefs in the case. Those siding with Snyder include 48 states (including Kansas), the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a bipartisan group of senators.
Free speech groups are siding with Westboro, but are very quick to distance themselves from the group's message. They say they find Westboro's speech abhorrent, but insist he First Amendent protects even the most hate-filled rhetoric.
"WBC's speech is in a format showing it is religious commentary," said church members in their brief to the Supreme Court. "WBC's speech was public-issue speech, highly disliked, and needing protection. A massive public discussion is under way in this nation -- about the wars; the soldiers; their deaths; and their funerals. Everyone is using the occasion of soldiers' deaths to comment, about the policies of this nation."