Supreme Court justices seemed to struggle with the question of whether the father of a dead Marine should win his lawsuit against fundamentalist church members who picketed his son's funeral.
The justices heard argument Wednesday in the emotion-laden case of Albert Snyder. His son died in Iraq in 2006, and members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested the funeral to make their point that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are punishment for Americans' immorality, including tolerance of homosexuality and abortion.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the question is whether the First Amendment must tolerate "exploiting this bereaved family."
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Original Story, October 5
By Chris Durden
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Wednesday in a case involving Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church. The group claims its protest outside the funeral of a Maryland 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. The justices aren't expected to rule until next year.
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 its protests.
Albert Snyder testified he suffered severe physical and emotional distress. Church members argued their broader message was aimed at the military and not Snyder in particular.
A federal appeals court agreed. The judges concluded the signs and protest did not directly refer to Snyder, and were therefore protected.
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. However, they are very quick to distance themselves from the group's message. They find Westboro's speech abhorrent, but insist the First Amendent protects even the most hate-filled rhetoric.
"WBC's speech is in a format showing it is religious commentary," church members said in their brief to the high 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."
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