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Beliefnet News

Supreme Court to Weigh Limits of Kansas Church’s Hate Speech

WASHINGTON (RNS) The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Monday (March 8) to decide whether the father of a fallen soldier can sue religious protesters for picketing at his son’s funeral with signs that read “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
The case will test the boundaries of the Constitution by weighing whether extreme speech that inflicts emotional pain — especially at sensitive venues such as memorials — should be protected by the First Amendment.
Members of Westboro Baptist Church, led by pastor and founder Fred Phelps in Topeka, Kansas, have protested at military funerals to express their belief that America is being punished for tolerance of homosexuality.
Westboro protestors traveled to Westminster, Md., to picket at the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who killed in combat in Iraq on March 3, 2006.
They marched around the outskirts of St. John’s Catholic Church and the cemetery with signs that read “God Hates the USA,” “Fag troops” and “Pope in hell.” After the funeral, Phelps also posted material on his Web site against the fallen Marine, saying his father had “taught Matthew to defy his creator” and “raised him for the devil.”
Snyder’s father sued Phelps for invasion of privacy and for intentionally inflicting emotional distress. Snyder received $10.9 million in damages but a judge modified the jury’s amount to $5 million.
The decision was reversed last September by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court threw out the verdict on the basis of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.
“Whatever that U.S. Supreme Court does is going to be beautiful because now the whole world is looking at this situation,” said Phelps’ daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, a church spokeswoman. “It’s given us a huge megaphone and furthermore, we get to talk to the conscience of this nation that’s responsible for this horrible mess that this country is in.”
— Kimberlee Hauss
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • Gwyddion9

    Yes, this is a tough question. These soldiers have died to even these…using the word loosely, ‘people’ have the right to protest and should be thanking them as well. It’s hard to say because if you’re going to have 1st amendment rights of free speech, then phelps should be allowed to protest, even as disgusting as it/(they)is/(are).
    This type of Christian has to have an enemy to justify their religion and faith. I’m still waiting for someone to do something. The phelps’s move into an area and step on everyone. I won’t loose sleep when the pages are turned on them. what comes around, goes around. Old man phelps is an angry and evil man and now the outside reflects the inside.

  • nnmns

    I’m for freedom of speech, but I hope they can find a legal hook to reinstate that penalty. These people are scum to do what they do at funerals; anyone’s funeral.

  • pagansister

    Those folks are as low as a human can go. Our right to free speech doesn’t include yelling “fire” in a theatre or crowded room. Maybe it shouldn’t allow hurting and insulting those who have lost a loved one just because the loved one happened to be gay. Isn’t there a clause under “hate crimes” where it could be placed?

  • Heretic_for_Christ

    Much as I despise the vile things these pseudo-devout morons are saying, I don’t think the answer is a legal ban. If giving offense is banned, then no one can ever take a chance on saying anything.
    Phelps and his cretinous brood take free speech to a disgusting extreme; but unlike shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, what they are saying does not represent a clear and present danger. It is hurtful and a blasphemous offense against the religion they claim to uphold, but it is not a danger. Therefore, the answer lies with the rational people of faith, who must gather at the places where Phelps shows up, showing their support for the grieving families to demonstrate that Phelps is not a religious individual but a demented fanatic whose words are annoying but unimportant — just irritating background noise, lile the whining of an undisciplined brat.
    This is the essential point about fanaticism — it cannot be legislated out of existence or bombed out of existence, but it can be marginalized and thereby rendered irrelevant.

  • pagansister

    HFC: I do realize that what that “Christian” group does probably can’t be legislated out of existence, but can’t there be an exception?? :o)

  • cknuck

    If there is an exception who gets to pick what exceptions should be made? That being said this is an attack on less than public figures. Public personalities should be open to such approaches but a private family should not be subject to such tactics.

  • JohnQ

    On this we agree completely.
    I am a big fan of free speech. While I am not happy to hear the kind of stuff said by Phelps, et al……I think they have a right to say it. However, I am not sure I think they have a right to say it outside a church/funeral home/etc nor, at a cemetery while/where a funeral/memorial service is taking place.

  • nnmns

    Who gets to define “public” cknuck? I said I hoped they could find a legal way, I didn’t ask for an exception for just the reason you gave.
    And indeed it’s a very good thing when the good people of the area, Christian or other, gather and shield the funeral from their vileness. It would also be good if whatever they do did not make the news. They do it for the coverage.

  • Henrietta22

    I hope the Supreme Court will decide that a family burying their dead should be one of peace, and respect while the loved ones grieve and listen to words of comfort from their Minister, Priest, Rabbi, and not have to be torn apart by fanatical people who are protected by the Freedom of Speech Amendment that was never written to allow disrespect or hate speech in the middle of anyone’s funeral.

  • cknuck

    nnmns quote, “Who gets to define “public” cknuck? I said I hoped they could find a legal way, I didn’t ask for an exception for just the reason you gave.”
    nnmns I don’t know anybody outside of you that need to have what is a public figure defined. And the whole “I didn’t ask for an exception” statement is bewildering to me, who cares what you asked for I’m just stating my mind.

  • nnmns

    I expect we could find legal cases that hinge on whether a person is or is not a “public personality”.
    And if you don’t care what I said why are you responding to it? Think before you post cknuck.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    I’ve posted about this story on Beliefnet’s news blog, Belief Beat. Check it out here:

  • cknuck

    nnmns you need to get involved in another world you are so immersed that you what to give instructions as to how people should post. Get a life and live it to the fullest and you won’t take everyone’s post so personally. If i don’t respond to your next reply quickly its because I am living my life.

  • Tim

    It is important to know what people actually think. Laws that discourage this are mistaken. Most of us have distant relatives who rejected long forgotten religions. We have more recent relatives that have rejected more recent religions. It is a mistake for religious people to think we don’t understand their point of view. We understand them completely. We just happen to totally reject their inability to progress intellectually. Blame the ineffectual teaching of the history of religious ideas in high school. Most zealots don’t know their own religious history.

  • Lyric

    Just as this group of people { I hesitate to call them Christians } Have the right to express their religious views , I have the RIGHT to be free from their religious views. Not withstanding the fact that their hate filled message is not part of any religions doctrine . Its just Hate Speech . Freedom of speech was not meant for people to spew such vile whenever and where ever they wanted . It was so that our government would never silence the people with an opposing views. Great, we get a Press free from government control . We get to express ourselves. Great. There was a time when people were held accountable for their words though . Where you could say whatever you wanted , but , if you defamed, dishonored, disrespected , lied about or offended someone with your works, you were called out on it and more than likely had to defend your words with your life. Other countries { Canada & England } to name a few, have denied this group entrance to their nations due to the fact that they are a HATE GROUP NOT A RELIGIOUS GROUP. Think of it this way, If the KKK showed up at a black guys funeral with signs saying GOD HATES NI***, would it be protected speech? Would they be expressing their religious views? We the people wouldn’t even entertain the argument of free speech, we would not permit it . Nor should we permit this . If the Phelps want to protest then they are free to do so, however don’t infringe on the rights of others such as a father’s right to bury and morn his fallen son.

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